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.
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.
‘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.
As more Ghanaians arrived, Acquah wanted to help them stay. Better yet, he thought, he could make money doing it by finding strangers to marry them quickly after their visas expired.
Informally, he named his business “the program.” When a fellow Ghanaian called, Acquah would charge the immigrant $3,000 to $3,500. Two employees were Acquah’s “contacts” and helped find U.S. citizens willing to get married for money. Acquah split the profit with his contact, who paid the U.S. citizen $500.
Acquah set up shop in his government office, using his government-owned fax machine to communicate about illicit marriages.
Word of the scheme spread to immigrants even before they left Ghana. “Those who were coming over here knew where to find an apartment, where to find a job and where to find a spouse,” said one law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
The business became so lucrative—Acquah has admitted pocketing $200,000—that it spawned competitors. One key rival was Eric Amoah, a Ghanaian immigrant whose own fraudulent marriage to a U.S. citizen had been arranged by Acquah.
Amoah put out word among the U.S. Ghanaian community, which grew from 20,889 in 1990 to 101,169 in 2004, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. At his five-bedroom house in Woodbridge, Amoah threw elaborate parties. At one such gathering, he met Markey Simpkins, a supervisor at a Home Depot in the District.
Occasionally, the men and women would decide they liked each other and would stay married. Far more often, they lived separate lives before reuniting, however briefly, at immigration offices in Fairfax County and Baltimore. There, they would recite their made-up stories about how they met or invent details such as which side of the bed their spouse slept on. Immigrants who marry U.S. citizens can get a visa to stay in the country immediately, instead of having to wait years, and can speed their citizenship by several years.
Prison, Deportation Loom
By this fall, prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alexandria thought they had enough evidence. Most of those convicted probably will serve less than a year in prison. Acquah and Amoah, who recently pleaded guilty to conspiracies to commit immigration fraud and money laundering, are expected to spend more time there.
But the biggest price is yet to come. Virtually all of the Ghanaians and other West African immigrants convicted—most of those charged were immigrants, although several U.S. citizens were charged as well—will be deported. Some now face the agonizing choice of whether to leave their children born in the United States, who are U.S. citizens, or take them to Africa.