Since becoming an attorney in 1989, David Agatstein has built up a successful law practice helping clients with personal-injury, criminal, domestic, and immigration matters. But soon, thanks to Agatstein’s recent federal conviction for conspiring with foreign nationals who married U.S. citizens fraudulently, he will “have to find another way to make a living,” predicts Gerard Patrick Martin, Agatstein’s criminal-defense attorney. “The element of fraud,” Martin says, “almost always results in disbarment.”
Martin says his client was nabbed as a result of an earlier federal investigation into an Eastern Shore “marriage broker” named Richard Hatfield who became a government cooperator. “On the Eastern Shore,” Martin continues, “there are many employees from Eastern Europe who come here, get in on a work visa for the summer, and then they’d find some way to stay.” Some would go to Hatfield for help in fraudulently marrying U.S. citizens in order to become lawful permanent residents and get on a path to citizenship, according to Agatstein’s plea agreement, which says Agatstein “knowingly assisted up to five aliens to submit immigration petitions” based on false information.
In two instances, court documents say, undercover agents themselves married foreign nationals in ceremonies arranged by Hatfield and then went to Agatstein’s office, wired for video and sound. On one of those visits, Agatstein was recorded saying, “I’ve never seen a case where they’ve prosecuted a spouse when the marriage was a fraud in a long, long time.”
Agatstein did not return a phone call to his law office, but Hatfield spoke by phone with City Paper—and vehemently denounced the fact that his name and role in the investigation was made public in court documents. “The fact that I got nailed is a stupid chance of luck,” he says, calling himself “another person used in the cause of justice.”
“It’s been going on forever,” Martin says of immigration marriage fraud, recalling that the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office brought such cases decades ago, when he was a federal prosecutor. He acknowledges that the one against his client is unusual, though, in that Agatstein, rather than engaging in a fraudulent marriage himself or brokering them on behalf of aliens, instead used his legal expertise to help already sham-married couples present false information in filings to change their immigration status. City Paper was unable to find another such case in Maryland on the online federal-courts database, known as PACER.
The case against Agatstein was investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations. ICE spokesperson Nicole Navas calls marriage fraud “a commonly employed tactic” used “to unlawfully obtain legitimate immigration benefits.” She describes a typical case involving “a broker or facilitator” who recruits a U.S. citizen to marry an alien “who may or may not already be” in this country. “The alien pays the broker as much as $60,000,” she continues, and the U.S. citizen “can earn approximately $5,000 to $10,000.” The citizen “then files materially false paperwork with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services” (USCIS) and “the sham couple also appears before USCIS for an interview, in which they provide false statements about their ‘marriage’ and life together.”
USCIS, meanwhile, does its part to stop fraudulently married aliens from getting immigration benefits. The process, according to USCIS spokesperson Daniel Cosgrove, involves an immigration services officer (ISO) who reviews petitions “to determine if the relationship is legal and bona fide.” If there are doubts, Cosgrove continues in an e-mail, then the officer may request further investigation and presents the findings back to the ISO, who then decides whether to approve the petition.
David North, a longtime immigration expert who writes for the nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) in Washington, D.C., says, “The number of times the government says no to a visa-creating marriage is low, though occasionally something pops up and something is done about it. Generally, the issue of immigration marriage fraud is back-burnered. I don’t sense a lot of urgency on the part of the government for coping with this.”
But Navas highlights several recent prosecutions and enforcement data to contend the federal government is making life difficult for marriage fraudsters. “From October 2009 through September 2011,” she says, cases investigated by ICE “generated 487 indictments, 418 criminal arrests, 349 administrative arrests, 417 convictions, and $1,671,572 dollars in seized assets from marriage-fraud investigations” nationwide. In one case in Los Angeles, she explains, a “massive marriage-fraud scheme” was dismantled by an operation called Newlywed Game, resulting in 59 convictions so far. In Florida, Operation Knot So Fast resulted in the arrests of more than 80 people for their participation in various marriage-fraud conspiracies.
Another CIS writer, journalist, and former U.S. diplomat, David Seminara, says marriage-fraud prosecutions are difficult cases to make. “Trying to prove that two people don’t really love each other is very hard,” he says—especially since “the vast majority of marriage frauds are one-sided, in which the American thinks, Hey, I’m in love, while the alien is just using the marriage to get immigration benefits.” Seminara and North both say it’s hard to say how many of the approximately quarter-million visa-creating marriages each year are fraudulent, but of those that are, those that involve both spouses working together to hoodwink the system are a minority.
In Maryland, Agatstein’s case is among more than a dozen prosecutions involving marriage fraud in the last decade, according to court records and government press releases reviewed by City Paper. In addition to Agatstein and Hatfield, who in 2009 was sentenced to three months’ probation, the Eastern Shore investigation resulted in the convictions of two others for marriage fraud: Siarhei Dziamiadau, a citizen of Belarus who received a 10-month prison sentence, and Nino Taraeva, a Georgian who was put on a year’s probation.
The other Maryland marriage-fraud cases involve a variety of defendants, including: an employee of the Federal Protective Service, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, who was paid for fraudulently marrying a Ghanian man; a Nigerian man who twice tried to gain immigration benefits by marrying U.S. citizens; a Frederick man who, in an 11-year period, fraudulently married nine separate immigrant women in order for them to become lawful permanent residents; three Afghans involved in a marriage-fraud triangle, including a U.S. Army civilian employee with top-secret security clearance; and a fraudulently married Middle River couple in which the Peruvian husband and his U.S. wife kept up the appearance of living together at the home of her boyfriend, a former Latin Kings gang leader who was being prosecuted for procuring false documentation for immigrants.
Agatstein’s case was slow to be prosecuted. He was first charged and arrested in September 2008 (The News Hole, Sept. 12, 2008), when agents raided his law office and seized immigration applications and financial records. After that, other than 2010 docket entries reflecting that Agatstein changed attorneys, nothing more happened in the case until this fall, when a superseding charge was filed in preparation for his December guilty plea.
“The thing just sat there forever,” Martin says. But now that it is over except for the sentencing, Martin says his client “did what he did, and he’s going to pay whatever he has to pay for it. He’s a very smart guy, and I hate to see this happen to him.” Martin emphasizes that there is “no long pattern of a guy who does this for a living. He got caught up in something.”
ICE Homeland Security Investigations’ William Winter, the special agent in charge in Baltimore, has some cautionary words to others who, like Agatstein, would facilitate marriage fraud.
“Immigration attorneys hold positions of public trust and it is disturbing that anyone would defraud the very system in which they work by encouraging or turning a blind eye on their clients to violate the law for their own personal profit,” Winter says in a statement. “Marriage fraud poses a significant vulnerability to our national security and exploits America’s legal immigration system. Whether you are marrying one person under false pretenses or various people, or facilitating the fraud, know this—you will be found, arrested, and held accountable for your actions.”