SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) - An Orange County couple and their daughter were arrested Wednesday on charges of arranging fake marriages for more than 20 foreigners seeking ways to remain in the country, authorities said.
Ajit Bhargava (ah-JEET bar-GAH-vah), his wife Nisha (NEE-sha) Bhargava, 56, and their daughter Runjhun (Roon-joon) Bhargava, 30, were arrested early in the morning at their home in Yorba Linda and are charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud, federal prosecutors said.
Authorities said the Bhargavas ran immigration services company MPEagle Consultants in Cerritos, Calif., and charged as much as $60,000 to arrange bogus marriages for foreigners who came to the country on visas, mostly from India.
Authorities said the Bhargavas used the same witnesses, and sometimes, the same U.S. citizen spouse, on multiple green card applications, and had the couple take photographs in different locations wearing different outfits to make it look like they had a relationship.
Immigration officers noticed the pattern and forwarded 21 similar-looking cases to investigators at Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"They were just recycling marriage certificates. They were even using the same witnesses, a couple of applications had the same U.S. spouse," said Joseph Macias, who heads ICE's homeland security investigations in Orange County. "It got to the point where they didn't care. They thought they were just kind of above the law."
In a 75-page affidavit, authorities said the Bhargavas paid an associate to recruit unemployed and low-income U.S. citizens - who were often homeless or drug addicts - to enter into the marriages. The U.S. citizens were offered $2,000 for the ruse, but often weren't fully paid, court papers said.
Nisha and Runjhun Bhargava entered not guilty pleas in federal court on Wednesday, said John Barton, an attorney for the daughter. Ajit Bhargava was not in court because of a minor medical problem but will appear Thursday with his wife and daughter for a detention hearing, Barton said.
Barton declined to comment on the allegations.
A message was left for Nisha Bhargava's attorney, Joel Levine.
Ajit Bhargava was being represented by a federal public defender.
Messages were left for the Bhargavas at their home and office in Cerritos.
Authorities on Wednesday searched the Bhargavas' home in Yorba Linda, office in Cerritos and another office in Anaheim Hills.
MPEagle lists on its website offices in Southern California, New Jersey, Georgia and India.
To date, the U.S. citizens and foreigners who entered into the bogus marriages have not been charged. The investigation is ongoing, Macias said.