BRATTLEBORO, Vt. - Town Clerk Annette Cappy, whose office issues hundreds of marriage licenses a year, began to notice in 2005 there was something decidedly unromantic about some of the couples seeking the licenses.
“They showed no signs of affection,’’ Cappy recalled in a recent interview. “Often it was as if they didn’t know each other.’’ In some cases, she said, the couples did not speak the same language.
Three years later, in a criminal investigation that sprang from Cappy’s suspicions, federal agents raided the Holyoke home of Maria-Helena Knoller. They seized $117,000 in cash and evidence far more suggestive: 61 gold rings at the ready for upcoming nuptials, and a ledger containing records of 70 couples already wed.
Knoller, it turned out, was a matchmaker of a special kind. For fees as high as $12,000, she would pair illegal immigrants from Brazil with Americans, arrange their marriages - and, in some cases, their subsequent divorces - after they received status as “lawful permanent residents’’ of the United States.
She pleaded guilty in February to federal charges of marriage fraud and concealing and shielding illegal immigrants for 32 of those marriages. But her prosecution is an exception, and Knoller’s case is a vivid example of how easy it is for illegal immigrants to dodge US immigration laws by getting married.
The US government estimates that of the 200,000 marriages that result in temporary or illegal immigrants receiving green cards each year, up to 30 percent are shams. And yet, while billions of federal dollars are devoted to protecting borders, enforcement efforts aimed at immigration fraud are hobbled by sparse budgets and understaffed agencies that, according to government auditors, allow an estimated 60,000 sham marriages a year to evade detection.
“The process of weeding out the fraudulent [marriages] - those arranged solely to obtain . . . a work permit and green card - is nearly impossible,’’ said David Seminara, a former US consular officer who wrote a 2008 study that faulted the process of identifying fraud in immigration petitions filed domestically and overseas. “Even when documentation is asked for, to show that the couple is living together, it’s easily doctored. There’s just too many applications and too few immigration officers handling these cases.’’
Taking her clients to Vermont for their nuptials made Knoller’s scam easier. Vermont does not require waiting periods or proof of identity to obtain a marriage license. While some of the 32 marriages for which Knoller was prosecuted were licensed in Connecticut and Massachusetts, 22 occurred in Brattleboro. Massachusetts, and every other state bordering Vermont, requires proof of identity.
Even when cases are discovered, investigations can be painfully slow, and prosecutions are rare. Authorities in the Knoller case received repeated alerts from Cappy, the Brattleboro town clerk but still it took three years to shut the operation down.
And then, in a double-standard that often marks such cases, the immigrants who purchased Knoller’s services are facing deportation, but none of the US citizens involved - collecting fees up to $6,000 to act as spouses - face any legal consequences.
Knoller, who is free on a $100,000 bond and working in a Chicopee doughnut shop while awaiting sentencing in January, declined to comment for this article. But court papers and interviews depict an efficient operation she made little effort to hide, and one that appeared to provide a comfortable living for her. In 2006, a year after she began her operation, she and her second husband, put down $57,000 in cash to buy a single-family home in Holyoke. They own two rental properties in Chicopee.
A Brazilian immigrant herself, Knoller had come to the United States in 1990 and gained legal status when she married Herbert Knoller, a German here on a valid work permit. The two eventually split in an acrimonious divorce, and she remarried. For a time, she worked for a Springfield lawyer whose practice included immigration law. Then, early in 2005, she began arranging marriages, according to records seized by authorities from her home.
She held parties at her house, inviting Americans from Puerto Rico who lived in the area and Brazilians, according to friends and family members. Many of her marriages matched Puerto Rican US citizens with Brazilians, usually those who had come to the United States on tourist visas and illegally remained.
Her offers of an easy, if expensive, path to legal residency probably fell on eager ears, said Natalicia Tracy, executive director of the Brazilian Immigrant Center in Boston.
“I can tell you the people who come here are very vulnerable and very naive,’’ she said. “If you tell them, ‘This is something you can do to stay,’ they’re going to do it because even working 60, 80 hours a week here is better than what they came from in Brazil.’’
Knoller’s pitch to prospective American spouses, according to the federal prosecutor on the case and the seized documents, was always the same: She would fill out the paperwork and provide a translator to help the couples answer any questions posed to them at immigration interviews. All they had to do was show up for the license application, the marriage ceremony and then, a few months later, an immigration interview to tell an officer a story of love and marriage.
“Ms. Knoller would instruct them what to wear, how to act - and arrange for wedding photos to be taken,’’ prosecutor Kevin O’Regan told US District Judge Michael A. Ponsor at Knoller’s plea hearing in February. “This really was one-stop shopping for fraudulent marriages.’’
The Americans who participated received half their payments, usually $3,000, when the marriage licenses was granted and the second half when the provisional green cards were issued. Knoller assured the Americans they did not have to live with their spouses and that, after two years of marriage - the time it takes to get a permanent green card - she could facilitate their divorce filings.
Divorce actions for half the 32 marriages have been filed or granted in Massachusetts alone, according to records made available by the Massachusetts Family and Probate Court.
The American participants faced little risk. Though federal law provides for prosecution and five-year prison sentences for Americans in fraudulent marriages, prosecutors rarely target the American co-conspirators.
This legal double standard has existed for decades. As far back as 1985, Alan C. Nelson, director of what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service, told a US Senate subcommittee that it was wrong to expel immigrants in phony marriages while giving their citizen accomplices a pass.
There are exceptions, however. In one recent case in Maine, federal prosecutors indicted 11 Americans in a scheme that paired about three dozen Ugandans and Kenyans with Maine residents. The orchestrator, Uganda native Rashid Kakande, 38, was sentenced in June to two years in prison and fined $20,000.
But most often it is the immigrants who face consequences. The reason, federal officials have said, is that they do not have the resources to prosecute Americans.
Marriage fraud rings have taken advantage of the disparate treatment, said Dan Lane, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigator who in July broke up a large fraud ring involving 39 sham marriages in Sacramento.
Leaders tell prospective American participants, “ ‘You probably won’t get caught, and if you do, all that’s going to happen is they’ll sort of wag their finger at you,’ ’’ Lane said. “Unfortunately, in some jurisdictions that’s the case.’’
Government auditors have long complained that there are numerous barriers to effective marriage fraud enforcement that prevent cases from being referred to prosecutors. A principal reason for the poor oversight is a lack of money. While the Department of Homeland Security spent $6.3 billion on border security in fiscal 2011, it devoted only $39.2 million to fighting immigration fraud of all varieties.
In addition, the process of initiating fraud investigations is cumbersome, according to a report by Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General. A suspicion that a marriage is fraudulent must be vetted at four levels at two agencies dealing with green card issues and immigration fraud - US Citizenship and Immigration Services and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Even then, a US attorney may decide not to prosecute.
Interviewers working for Citizenship and Immigration Services, the first line of defense against fraud, have little incentive to request investigations, the inspector general found in its 2008 review. Graded by their efficiency in processing immigration petitions, many interviewers are reluctant to fill out time-consuming fraud referral forms, unless the deceptions are obvious, the inspector general concluded.
That lack of resources helps explain why Knoller’s flagrant scam went on for so long, even as the Brattleboro’s town clerk sounded warnings.
Cappy, because of her suspicions, began alerting US Citizenship and Immigration Services in September 2005. In her letter, she wrote that while her office was accustomed to issuing marriage licenses to couples from out of state or even foreign countries, “the recent rush of Brazilians eager to be married in Vermont seems to be quite an extraordinary coincidence and has caught our attention.’’
In addition, Cappy wrote that a woman named “Maria’’ often accompanied the couples, acting as their translator and guide in gaining the marriage licenses. She also included copies of the dozen permits she had already issued.
Cappy sent several more letters to the agency - keeping the immigration office updated on Knoller’s continued stream of visits. And yet it took three years to stop her operation.
Now, Knoller faces up to 10 years in prison as well as forfeiture of her Holyoke home and the two rental properties - and deportation to Brazil.
The sought-after green cards became worthless after Knoller’s scheme was uncovered. All of the illegal immigrants involved received visits from federal agents telling them they face deportation, according to the immigration lawyers representing them.