Hunch Unravels Immigrant Wedding Scam

Circuit Court Clerk David Bell tipped off police about the sham marriages, triggering a nearly four-year investigation.
Circuit Court Clerk David Bell tipped off police about the sham marriages, triggering a nearly four-year investigation. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2006

They didn't hug. They didn't kiss. They didn't even sit together.

Many couples going to the Arlington County Courthouse seemed more like strangers than people applying for marriage licenses. A man named Sam often escorted them to the sixth-floor clerk's office. Sometimes, there would be a furtive exchange of money in the elevator.

Before long, some of the same people would be back, filing for divorce, their court papers littered with mistakes -- always the same mistakes.

"They misspelled 'circuit,' " said David A. Bell, the longtime Circuit Court clerk. "It was obvious something was going on."

Bell tipped off police, triggering a nearly four-year investigation that recently broke up one of the Washington region's biggest and most brazen immigration scams: an estimated 1,000 fake marriages. The scheme was centered in the area's little-noticed but rapidly growing community of immigrants from Ghana.

For immigrants, marrying a U.S. citizen is a quick ticket to citizenship. Along the East Coast and all the way to West Africa, at car dealerships, malls, parties and even a Home Depot, the word had spread: If you are in the United States illegally, go to Arlington. It's easy to get married in Virginia, because marriage laws are relatively lax. Arlington, with its proximity to the Metro system and the District, is especially convenient.

In recent weeks, 19 of 22 people charged so far in the undercover investigation have pleaded guilty in federal court in Alexandria, including bank tellers, car salesmen and health-care workers. Court testimony and interviews document how Ghanaian immigrants married U.S. citizens they had met the same day, then were coached on how to fool immigration inspectors, usually months later, into believing that the marriage was real. All they wanted, they said, was to stay in the United States.

Now, they will have to leave.

Caroline Chepkwony, who entered the United States in 1996 as an employee of the Kenyan Embassy, sobbed on the witness stand recently as she told the judge that she found a sham husband for the sake of her 3-year-old son.

"This is why I entered into this marriage, just hoping to give my son the best life he can get," said Chepkwony, 36, as she pleaded guilty to marriage fraud. "And I figured out the only place he can get a better life is here in America."

'The Program' Grows

As Latinos have migrated in record numbers to the Washington region, there has been a quieter exodus: from Africa, especially the Republic of Ghana. The Northern Virginia and Maryland suburbs are home to the second-highest concentration of Ghanaians in the nation, about 20,000.

One of the first to arrive was Samuel "Sam" Acquah. Born in Ghana in 1949, Acquah came to the United States on a student visa. He got a master's degree, a law degree from George Mason University and a $112,000-a-year job in the chemical engineering section of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria.

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