Marriage scam in Westchester Co.?

November 16, 2009 9:35:32 PM PST
An Eyewitness News Investigation uncovered a possible marriage scam involving Middle Eastern men. It happened in the months just before 9/11, perhaps as a way to gain legal status. It's a security risk that still exists today.

Men born in Pakistan, Egypt and Yemen traveled to a small town in Westchester County to get married. So easy it was then to get a license that some of the brides got married twice to different men.

Months before 9/11, Middle-Eastern born men came to this small Westchester town to get married. Dozens upon dozens of men from Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Syria, all non-residents of the county marrying American women from New York City in of all places: The village of Harrison.

HOFFER: "You were suspecting something was up?"
MAYOR WALSH: "Wouldn't you?"

During a five month period, Harrison Mayor Joan Walsh, the Town Clerk at the time, granted marriage licenses to nearly 200 Middle Eastern men. The documents we recently obtained through a source show that in 4 days in April 2001, the clerk and her staff granted licenses to 62 Middle-Eastern-born grooms. Walsh says the state told her as long as they showed photo identification she had no choice but to give them a marriage license.

HOFFER: "What were you thinking? Pakistani men one after another lined up to get married here."
MAYOR WALSH: "What I was thinking the government made a mistake giving the amnesty program. That was what I was thinking."

She was talking about the amnesty program the Justice Department had extended to April 30, 2001. This allowed undocumented immigrants to more easily legalize their status by marrying a U.S. citizen. Still, even after the deadline, Middle Eastern men kept coming to Harrison to get married, some to the same bride. A Bronx woman got two different licenses in Harrison in one month allowing her to marry two Tunisian men. A Florida woman traveled to Harrison and got two licenses and then married two Egyptian men.

MAYOR: "There is a certain amount of belief that people don't lie."
HOFFER: "But you said yourself you suspected something highly suspicious was up, yet you're telling me you didn't check the documents to see that you were handing out double licenses to the same brides?"
MAYOR: "Out of 300 marriages, out of 300, there were 5 errors."

The suspicious Middle East-Harrison marriage connection practically stopped after 9/11. That's when Mayor Walsh says she finally called law enforcement authorities.

MAYOR: "Homeland security and I believe it was also a pair of FBI men."
HOFFER: "So, FBI and Homeland security came here after 9/11?"
MAYOR: "Yes."
HOFFER: "To look at the documents, marriage documents?"
MAYOR: "Yes."
HOFFER: "You documented that, didn't you?"
MAYOR: "No."
HOFFER: "You have no record of FBI agents coming here to look at your documents."
MAYOR: "No. I don't. I know that they came. The two people in the office knew they came and we cooperated fully."

Neither the FBI nor Immigration and Customs Enforcement would confirm whether they investigated the onslaught of Middle Eastern marriages here in Harrison. But in just one afternoon, we uncovered rather quickly that some of these marriages appear to be have been part of an immigration scam.

HOFFER: "Does June 1, 2001 mean anything to you?"
WOMAN: "No."
HOFFER: "Well, it should. That's when you got married."
WOMAN: "No, no."

Tracy Wright insists someone stole her identity to marry a Yemen-born man.

HOFFER: "You had to show photo i.d?"
WRIGHT: "Somebody must look like me. I have a face that looks like a lot of people."
HOFFER: "So this wasn't you?"
WRIGHT: "I don't even know a Mr. Mohammad."

We heard the same explanation from Sophie Bonilla

HOFFER: "Does the name Mohamed mean anything to you?"
BONILLA: "No."
HOFFER: "You married him in May 2001."
BONILLA: "No, no."
HOFFER: "They were using your i.d.?
BONILLA: "Yeah."

Wherever the truth lies, experts tell us what was going on in Harrison has all the markings of a marriage scam to speed up legal residency -- a favorite recruitment tool of al Qaeda operatives, including convicted terrorist Khalid Abu-al-dahab.

"He not only used fraudulent marriage himself, he also helped others bring them here and use sham marriage to help them assimilate as well. It's a very common tactic," Janice Kephart said.

That it still continues means the lessons of 9/11 have been forgotten just like the hundreds of men that may have illegally slipped into this country years ago through small town halls like Harrison.

HOFFER: "Do you ever wonder where these men are that you married?"
MAYOR: "Not really."
HOFFER: "You don't?"
MAYOR: "No."

There was a significant spike in marriages in other towns near Harrison at the time, but none as big as Harrison's 325-percent jump. We don't know if the increases in the nearby towns included large numbers of Middle Eastern men.

If you have a tip about this or any other issue you'd like investigated, please give our tipline a call at 877-TIP-NEWS. You may also e-mail us at the.investigators@abc.com and follow Jim Hoffer on Twitter at twitter.com/jphoffer.


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