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updated: 2/11/2013 1:51 PM

Feds: Des Plaines woman arranged sham marriages for noncitizens

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A Des Plaines woman who runs an Arlington Heights-based immigration consulting business faces federal charges alleging she helped arrange at least four sham marriages to help foreign clients evade immigration laws, authorities announced today.

Teresita Zarrabian, 60, is charged with conspiracy to commit marriage fraud, marriage fraud, visa fraud and obstruction of justice in an indictment unsealed following her arrest Thursday.

Indicted with her on charges of conspiracy to commit marriage fraud, marriage fraud and visa fraud is Michael Smith, 41, of Bellwood.

The charges are the result of an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations and the Chicago Document and Benefit Fraud Task Force, including U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service's Fraud Detection and National Security Unit.

"Marriage fraud is a serious crime that exploits our nation's immigration system and poses a vulnerability to our security," Gary J. Hartwig, special agent-in-charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Chicago, said in a news release.

Authorities uncovered the scheme when Zarrabian attempted to arrange a phony marriage between a foreign national and an undercover federal agent who was posing as a U.S. citizen, the indictment states.

Zarrabian, who owns Zarrabian and Associates in Arlington Heights, pleaded not guilty Thursday and was released on her recognizance. Smith pleaded not guilty Friday and also was released.

Zarrabian was not available to comment Monday, a person answering the phone at her office said.

According to the indictment, between 2005 and 2012, Zarrabian assisted foreign-born clients complete the necessary forms to become legal permanent residents on the basis of marriage to a U.S. citizen. Foreign nationals who marry U.S. citizens legitimately may become legal permanent residents.

Clients paid Zarrabian between $8,000 and $15,000 in exchange for arranging fraudulent marriages to U.S. citizens recruited by Zarrabian and Smith, authorities allege. Sham marriages took place in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2011, according to the indictment. Smith was the groom in the first of those marriages, the indictment states.

Zarrabian allegedly paid Smith a portion of the money she received from foreign national clients for his participation, according to federal authorities. In turn, Zarrabian promised to pay approximately $5,000 to the U.S. citizen spouses for their participation in a sham marriage, the indictment claims.

Both defendants arranged to have individuals travel to Las Vegas for a fraudulent wedding and also took photos of the couple and other steps to create the false impression that the sham marriages were legitimate, authorities allege.

Zarrabian also met with the couples and told them what actions they needed to take to make their marriages appear legitimate during marriage interviews with officials, according to the indictment.

The obstruction count claims Zarrabian attempted to persuade a U.S. citizen involved in a fraudulent marriage from communicating information to law enforcement, authorities said.

Conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and each count of marriage fraud carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Visa fraud carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and the obstruction count against Zarrabian carries a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

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