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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Telling true love from immigrant scam
Officials are after fraudulent marriages. But how do you tell it's a fraud?
By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN
Published July 14, 2007
Nelly and Jeff Boyette, shown at her sister's home in Tampa, met and married seven years ago. Their interview with immigration did not go well, and Nelly faces deportation.
[Kathleen Flynn | Times]
TAMPA - Nelly Boyette nudged her husband awake.
"Jeff, it's time to go."
"Give me one more minute," he replied.
The couple was tired from a long weekend of selling their wares at the flea market. It's where the unlikely pair met eight years ago. He was a native Floridian with stickers on his boombox telling foreigners to speak English. She was an immigrant from Peru with a mind for business.
They married in 2001.
But that morning last August, Jeff rose from bed, flicked on the light and walked into the bathroom - not realizing his recollection of those steps was about to become far more important.
The couple drove to the Tampa office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to secure Nelly's permanent residency. Nelly, 32, left their photos in the van. Jeff, 42, didn't think to bring his wallet.
Both considered the appointment routine.
* * *
Two years ago, driven by a campaign to strengthen the immigration system amid national security concerns, every immigration district in the nation set up a new unit called the Office of Fraud Detection and National Security.
In the six-county Tampa Bay area, marriage fraud accounts for 95 percent of fraud cases, said Timothy Shavers, head of the unit.
It's an old scam, he said. Marrying an American remains the fastest route to a green card.
In the two years since the unit's inception, Tampa immigration officials have turned in about 200 immigrants for deportation. Sixty cases have been referred for criminal prosecution. One case can include dozens of people.
If officers suspect that a citizen married an immigrant as a friend or favor, they typically let the citizen go in exchange for a signed confession, Shavers said. The immigrant spouse faces deportation.
In some cases, especially if investigators find that money changed hands, criminal charges can be brought against the immigrants before deportation. Citizens who cooperate receive immunity, Shavers said, though sometimes they too are charged.
Mainly, the government wants to catch immigrants. "We don't know these people," he said.
Americans caught in false marriages almost always crack, said Shavers, who threatens them with a 15- to 30-year prison sentence on charges ranging from visa fraud, conspiracy, falsifying documents, making false statements and marriage fraud.
The going rate for marrying an immigrant is between $10,000 and $35,000, Shavers said.
Officials have seen it all: spouses who live together but sleep in separate bedrooms; Americans married to immigrants who still live with an original spouse from their country.
Tell-tale signs: no joint checking accounts or utility bills; new bank accounts; a recent divorce and marriage just before meeting with immigration officials.
It's not unusual for investigators to follow a couple or make 4 a.m. visits to verify that they live together, Shavers said.
But it almost always comes down to the interview: that last step to get a green card.
* * *
When Jeff and Nelly Boyette walked into the immigration office, they were separated.
An agent bore down on Jeff:
Where is your bedroom in the house? Where is the bedroom light switch? How many knobs are in the shower? What did Nelly eat for breakfast? Was your last Christmas tree real or fake? What is your home address? Your telephone number? When did she return from her last visit to Peru?
Jeff flubbed several answers. He said the tree was real. Nelly said it was fake. The tree wasn't theirs, they explained later. It belonged to someone who shared the house where they lived.
Jeff also didn't know the couple's address, phone number or the date Nelly returned from a visit to Peru two weeks before, officials said.
Jeff said he did know the address. But he keeps their telephone number written down in his wallet, which was in the van.
"We're always together," he said. "I never call the house."
And the only thing he says he remembers about Nelly's return from Peru was his relief to have her home. The more the agent pushed, the more irritated Jeff said he became.
"You think I'm playing? You can do 15 years," Jeff remembers the agent telling him as he displayed his badge.
The agent told Jeff if he came clean, he could leave without being arrested - just confess that his marriage was a sham. Jeff insisted he was telling the truth. The agent didn't believe him.
Nelly's application was denied. Instead of a green card, she was ordered to court this February for deportation.
Jeff left the office shaking and crying, Nelly said.
"Let's go, Papi," Nelly told him, shaken from her own interview but more worried for Jeff. "I don't want anything to happen to you."
* * *
The official denial letter cited Jeff's inability to answer basic questions and the couple's failure "to provide any utility bills, automobile or health insurance."
The couple doesn't have health insurance, Nelly said. They lived with his mother for several years before moving in with her sister in Tampa, so they don't have a lease. They're saving for a house of their own.
She tried to show the agent utility bills that day, she said, but he refused to look at them. She showed the Times two electric bills from 2004 in both their names. They've also filed income taxes together since 2002.
Nelly's scrapbooks show pictures of the couple with family and friends dating back years.
The couple complement each other, said Gregory Suckow, 33, who is married to Nelly's sister and shares the home with them.
Nelly is boisterous and outgoing; Jeff is timid but hardworking, he said.
Jeff prefers to let Nelly do the talking. When asked a question, he answers slowly with few words, one reason why Nelly thinks the agent didn't believe him.
Nelly handles their finances, because Jeff, who has a grade-school education, is bad with math, she said.
She drives because Jeff doesn't have a license, so the van insurance is in her name, she said. Nelly appreciates the fact that Jeff lets her make the decisions, because she found the men back in Peru too controlling.
Despite his attitude about foreign languages, Jeff shows patience with her, Nelly said.
"If I don't speak English very well, he takes time to understand me," she said.
She had been in the country illegally for four years before Jeff bought a banana from her at the flea market and asked for her phone number.
She was granted conditional residency after the two married in March 2001. If her appeal fails, she will be deported.
"I'm not doing anything wrong. I love this man," she said. "We have problems, like any married couple. I don't understand the reason for this."
* * *
Tampa immigration lawyer John Ovink said he turns down couples seeking representation who admit they married for a green card.
He believes the Boyettes married for love. Their paperwork is typical for a struggling, working class couple moving between relatives' homes, he said.
Also, he thought Jeff's experience during the interview reflected the couple's ignorance of what the appointment entailed, as well as Jeff's absent-minded and defensive character.
But it also revealed the new careful climate at immigration services, he said. "There is a culture of 'no' right now."
He has collected sworn statements from the couple's friends and relatives to bring to court in February.
On his witness list: Jeff's mother, the couple's former postman and Elizabeth Moore, a nun with the Franciscan Sisters of Alleghany order.
Moore said she met Nelly and Jeff more than six years ago when she stopped by their stall at the Swap Shop Flea Market on East Hillsborough to buy socks for the homeless.
When Moore found out that Nelly's green card application had been denied, she drove straight to the immigration office. "I was wild when I heard it," she said.
Agents told her their hands were tied because the case was in appeals, she said.
"I will stand by them to the end," she said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Saundra Amrhein can be reached at email@example.com or 813 661-2441.
By the numbers
60 Cases Tampa immigration officers submitted for criminal prosecution in suspected sham marriages in the past two years.
200 Immigrants in the Tampa district recommended for deportation because of suspected sham marriages in the past two years.
4,838 Cases nationwide where immigrants were recommended for deportation because of suspected sham marriages in the past two years.
The big cases
The majority of immigrants here are Hispanic, so most of the Tampa fraud unit's cases involve Latin Americans paying Puerto Ricans or other Hispanic citizens to marry them. Yet, some of the bigger rings broken up by the unit involved Nigerians and Turkish immigrants.
Operation Body Double: Nigerian native Patrick Abayomi Thomas arranged false marriages and phony passports out of his Temple Terrace home for $3,000 to $6,000, according to his agreement. He found local residents to marry Nigerians living in New York and New Jersey, officials said. He paid between $500 to $1,000 each and arranged travel for Nigerians to Tampa for the marriage. The immigrants and their spouses parted ways until their interview at the Tampa immigration office. Forty immigrants were indicted, convicted and placed in deportation proceedings.
Operation Turkish Pizza: The office uncovered a ring of fraud marriages among immigrants from Turkey connected through a string of pizza parlors. Ten were convicted of fraud.