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Sham Marriages for Miami's Immigrants Might Rise Under Trump Despite Dangers

Sham Marriages for Miami's Immigrants Might Rise Under Trump Despite Dangers
Illustration by Pete Ryan

As doctors made a final attempt to suction the fluid from his brother's failing heart, Jesús Jave-Castillo stood feet away but saw nothing. A set of sliding hospital curtains obscured Jenry's unconscious body, but Jesús could tell the prognosis wasn't good. At 2:30 p.m. March 18, 2017, a hospital staffer peeled back the curtain and confirmed the worst: "Se nos fue." We lost him.

Jesús held Gaudelia Roche, his brother's live-in girlfriend of 12 years, as she cried out and collapsed to the floor. Suddenly, Jenry's doctor hurried past them down the Jackson South hallways to deliver the news to a slender, 40-something woman with arched eyebrows and wavy brown hair.

Friends of the brothers, both undocumented immigrants from Peru, were puzzled: "¿Quien es ella?" one of them asked.

That simple question — Who is she? — has haunted Jenry's family since his sudden death at the age of 38. Jesús says Gaudelia first answered it that day in the hospital when she revealed Jenry had secretly paid the woman thousands of dollars to marry him so he could get papers. Indeed, in the hours after Jenry died, it was clear they barely knew each other. Asked to help fill in the death certificate, the woman didn't even know Jenry's middle name, his brother says.

Seven months later, Jenry's family has gone from baffled to desperate as the mystery bride has laid claim in civil court to his house and landscaping business. Both assets are a lifeline for Jenry's impoverished family in Peru, his brother says — losing everything to a random woman would be devastating.

But Jenry's wife, Madeline Velez, says his family has it all wrong. The marriage wasn't bogus at all, she argues, making her the rightful heir to the estate.

"We feel confident that the court will find that this was a legitimate marriage once everything is disclosed," her attorney, Scott Bugay, says.

The bizarre legal showdown offers a rare window into Miami's invisible world of sham immigration marriages — and their unintended consequences. Though many desperate immigrants still clamor for legal status by finding American spouses, experts say getting involved in a fake marriage is a high-stakes gamble that can trap unwitting brides and grooms into years of abuse, sexual servitude, or financial extortion.

"It's not uncommon for problems to develop when people get involved in these arranged marriages," says Allan Wernick, an immigration attorney and New York Daily News columnist who has fielded hundreds of questions from immigrant spouses over the years. "The American might hassle the foreigner for more money or demand sex when sex was never a part of the contract."

Thanks to Donald Trump's immigration crackdown, those kinds of quandaries could be on the rise. Although it's difficult to track sham marriages, county records show a spike in Miami-Dade licenses beginning in November 2016, mirroring a national trend that some say is a rush to the altar by undocumented immigrants. Anecdotally, local attorneys say Trump's heated rhetoric has panicked South Floridians without citizenship, forcing them to make desperate decisions to avoid being deported. For many, the choice to marry remains the easiest route to safety — no matter the risks.

"When you scare people, especially people who have been here a very, very long time, you force their hand. What do you expect?" says Joseph Lackey, a Miami immigration attorney. "Give them a legal path, but don't blame them if you don't give them a legal path and all of a sudden they're married to their neighbor. You're forcing them into this."

Despite never having legal status to live in the United States, Jenry Jave-Castillo lived the rags-to-riches American dream, rising from a dirt-poor Peruvian childhood to becoming a successful business owner in the Magic City.

Born in 1978, he was the sixth of seven sons for Nelsa Castillo Uriel and José Jave Chiclote, who raised their family in the small village of Chidon in northern Peru. The couple worked their own rice fields and sent their boys to the nearest school, which wasn't that close at all.

"There was only one school, so you had to go to that one," Jesús, the second-oldest brother, says in Spanish.

The boys' walk to class took an hour and 20 minutes each way, but that was nothing compared to the weekly trip their father made to buy groceries. Every Wednesday, he would wake before dawn to begin the six-hour walk to a more populated town where he could hitch a 15-minute ride to the store. Then, after picking up enough food for the week, he'd start the arduous walk back.

The family cooked dinner outside over an open flame and had only an outhouse for a bathroom, so it was a special treat for the boys when their father let them skip school to head into town for groceries. Wednesday trips with their dad were a rare opportunity to experience life outside Chidon — and maybe even see a car.

"It was like going to a party," Jesús recalls.

From a young age, Jenry was a natural comedian, the one in the family who could always make his brothers laugh. With his affable, easygoing personality, he made friends effortlessly and had a natural ability to strike up conversations with strangers. Ten years older than Jenry, Jesús was quieter and more reserved, but both shared the same hardscrabble work ethic instilled in them by their parents.

As they grew older, Jenry landed a job as a security guard, while Jesús worked a factory gig separating rice from the husk. But when their father came down with a brain-invading parasite that required surgery and expensive medication, the family suddenly needed money. In July 2000, Jesús made the tough decision to leave Peru to look for work in the States.

With no visa, no job prospects, and no command of English, Jesús was anxious for weeks before heading 3,000 miles north to the Mexican border. After crossing into the U.S., he made the long journey to Florida, where he reconnected with a cousin who lived in a small apartment in Kendall.

For the first nine months, Jesús worked odd jobs until he caught a break when an acquaintance introduced him to a wealthy Coral Gables businessman who needed help with landscaping and maintenance. A few years later, a big-time auto dealer hired him to do the same kind of work. Before leaving his job in the Gables, Jesús arranged for his younger brother to take his place.

Jenry arrived sometime in 2003, cramming into a small two-bedroom apartment with his brother and two roommates. After taking care of groceries, rent, and the rest of the bills, the siblings scraped together between $300 and $700 a month to send back home to their father. Although they shared a bedroom, Jesús says he barely saw his brother. At the end of a long day in the hot Florida sun, they'd come home exhausted, sinking into a deep sleep before waking up to do it all over again.

Whenever they did venture out, the brothers would head to Bayside Marketplace, where they could wander around and check out the views of Biscayne Bay without having to spend anything. Around 2005, that's where Jenry met Gaudelia, a curvaceous Peruvian with a round face and straight dark hair that fell almost to her elbows. Like him, she was undocumented, having overstayed her visa following a gig as a nanny and housekeeper. The two fell in love fast, and after a few short months, she moved into the apartment with Jenry and his brother.

Over the next few years, two other brothers arrived from Peru and the group moved into a new rental in Coral Gables. Without papers, Gaudelia stayed home, cooking and cleaning, while Jenry started his own landscaping company, J. Jave Lawn Services, in 2008. Because of his gregarious personality and uncanny ability to turn strangers into friends, his list of clients ballooned. Before long, he'd hired an entire team of men to help him mow lawns and landscape properties across the county.

Business was steady in Miami's year-round tropical climate, and by November 2013, Jenry had socked away enough money to buy a house in West Perrine. With an additional $55,000 from family in Peru and $30,000 from Jesús and his girlfriend to add to the down payment, the house was a precious investment the family hoped would appreciate in value.

For Jenry and Jesús, life as undocumented immigrants was risky but manageable. Jesús was more cautious, sometimes declining invitations to parties at Jenry's home for fear he might get pulled over for driving without a license. Jenry simply hacked his way around a legal status, buying vehicles in his company's name or using a friend as a straw buyer. As his business grew, he learned to withdraw money from the landscaping account in amounts small enough that the bank teller wouldn't ask for ID.

Everything changed in 2016, though, as it did for so many undocumented residents. As presidential candidate Donald Trump rose to popularity by bashing immigrants and promising to "build the wall," Jesús says they both felt the heat. In January 2017, just a few weeks before Trump took office, Jenry approached his brother with a plan to sell the home, liquidate their assets, and move back to Peru.

What Jesús didn't know, he says today, was that his brother was already hatching a secret backup plan to secure legal status.

After Jenry Jave-Castillo's sudden death at the age of 38, his parents in Peru worry they might lose their life savings to his secret wife.
After Jenry Jave-Castillo's sudden death at the age of 38, his parents in Peru worry they might lose their life savings to his secret wife.
Courtesy of the Jave-Castillo family

One week before Trump's inauguration in D.C., Jenry headed to the Coral Gables District Courthouse with Madeline Velez and left with a marriage license. Exactly three days after the required waiting period, they returned to the makeshift wedding chapel — a drab, office-sized space with yellow walls and fluorescent lighting — and vowed to love, honor, and comfort each other for all their living days. Pronouncing them husband and wife, a deputy clerk sent them on their way.

The January 18 wedding cost a total of $116 — $86 for the marriage license, $30 for the ceremony — but in reality, Jesús believes his brother paid much more. According to Jenry's longtime girlfriend, Jenry actually forked over $6,000 as payment for his bride's hand in marriage, with an additional $6,000 due after his application for residency was reviewed. (Velez and her attorney deny any such arrangement.)

If Jenry indeed paid cash in exchange for a marriage license, his case is far from isolated — especially in South Florida, where there's a long and colorful history of sham marriages. The topic first garnered major attention in 1985 when the Miami Herald published a searing investigation into the gray-market industry. Flipping through 50,000 marriage licenses, reporters looking for blatant examples of fraud found 175 cases where either the bride or groom had engaged in sketchy behavior, such as marrying multiple people within a short time frame.

They found other giveaways too: Numerous newlyweds claimed to have the same personal address in Wynwood, while an unusually high number of them had their wedding ceremonies performed by the same woman at a Little Havana immigration service. When undercover reporters visited Carmen P. Hernandez, whom they described as "a plump blonde who wears gold, wire-rim glasses," she quoted them a $4,000 fee and began rattling off a list of practice questions for their immigration interview.

"You'll have to study hard for two weeks. You have to do what I say," she told the reporters, who posed as a Haitian immigrant and his concerned friend. "I have 100 percent success because people do what I say."

After the Herald piece was published, U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, a Central Florida Republican, sponsored a bill to crack down on so-called green card marriages. At the time, the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated that 30 percent of weddings involving a foreign spouse were fraudulent, calling sham marriage a $20-million-a-year business.

"We need to put a halt to the new alien theory of 'buy a bride, get a green card,'" McCollum told reporters at the time.

President Ronald Reagan signed McCollom's Immigration Marriage Fraud Act into law in November 1986, increasing the maximum penalties for a fraudulent marriage to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The new law formalized the requirement for couples to pass an intensive interview about their relationship — answering questions as mundane as where they kept the toilet paper — and said newlyweds must remain together at least two years before the foreign spouse could be granted permanent residency.

After the bill became law, though, the 30 percent figure quoted by lawmakers and media was widely debunked. An independent 1988 study showed the feds had based it solely on agents' suspicions and not any actual data. But by then, it was too late.

Immigration law didn't change drastically again until 1996, when President Bill Clinton inadvertently caused a nationwide surge of courthouse weddings by signing the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which made it easier for the feds to deport undocumented immigrants. In Miami-Dade, the number of marriage applications doubled before the law went into effect April 1, 1997.

"Without a doubt, it's got to do with the new law," Roberto Reboso, head of the Dade County Marriage Licensing Bureau, told the St. Petersburg Times. "Our population hasn't increased that much in Dade County to show such a huge percentage of increase in marriage applications."

Despite the extra restrictions, Florida remained a hot spot for fake nuptials. In 2001, an undercover Key West cop busted her co-workers at a Duval Street T-shirt shop, where at least one marriage-for-papers was arranged for $2,500. Two years later, an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent in Miami was nabbed after he was discovered rubber-stamping hundreds of residency applications for fees as high as $10,000.

One of the largest raids came in 2005, when the feds picked up 30 people in a marriage-fraud sting dubbed Operation Honeymooners. The enterprise, which included elaborately staged videos of wedding receptions with champagne toasts and cake, involved 112 immigrant spouses, a paralegal, and even a paid-off county clerk employee. But it turns out the bubbly was as fake as the marriages — investigators said the flutes used to toast the bride and groom were actually filled with soda.

In recent years, marriage fraud has even been framed as a national security issue thanks to a number of terrorists who married U.S. citizens or residents. The 9/11 Commission found in 2005 that many arrested in terror plots from 1990 to 2004 obtained residency through a spouse, including El-Sayyid Nosair, an Al-Qaeda member later indicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Ali Mohamed, a double agent for the CIA and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad who trained Osama bin Laden's bodyguards. By one count, at least nine terrorists were involved in sham marriages.

The 2015 attack in San Bernardino sparked more concerns about fraud at the altar. After probing the plot that left 14 dead at an office holiday party, investigators discovered that the friend who provided Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik with guns had obtained residency through a bogus marriage.

Immigration attorneys say the 2015 attack had a noticeable effect on the federal agents who interview couples to determine whether a marriage is legit.

"No one ever gets in trouble for denying, but if you approve someone you're not supposed to approve, then you're on the hook for the next San Bernardino shooter," says Lackey, who has helped hundreds of immigrant spouses apply for residency in Miami. "If they approve one person that shouldn't have been approved, they get fired."

Quantifying sham marriages is difficult, but every year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services denies about 8 percent of applications submitted for foreign spouses to obtain residency — about 19,000 cases. But because the agency decides only if a marriage is "bona fide," not whether it's fraudulent, few people are ever arrested for marriage fraud. Usually, those arrests come only as part of a larger investigation into sham-marriage rings.

Jenry and his wife never made it to the immigration office for their own interview. Less than two months after they exchanged vows at the Coral Gables courthouse, he was rushed to the hospital with severe back pain. Only 59 days into their marriage, his new bride became a widow.

In the weeks after Jenry's death, Jesús says he made repeated plans to meet Velez at her Coral Gables office, only to have her bail at the last minute.

With no news on her end, he finally filed court paperwork to take over his brother's affairs in late May. But what seemed like a straightforward court procedure turned into a bitter fight over the estate when Velez suddenly lawyered up and began fighting for Jenry's assets.

Jesús was stunned. Though he knows little about his brother's relationship with Velez, he says he had no doubt their marriage was arranged. If he was truly in love, his brother would have invited him to the wedding — or at least told him about it, he says.

"I never knew about their marriage," Jesús insists. "I know that was not a legitimate marriage, that my brother did not marry her to be a true spouse."

Jenry and his girlfriend, Gaudelia Roche, lived together until the day he died. Jenry's brothers (right) are fighting for his estate in Miami.
Jenry and his girlfriend, Gaudelia Roche, lived together until the day he died. Jenry's brothers (right) are fighting for his estate in Miami.
Courtesy of the Jave-Castillo family

The day he was laid to rest, April 2, Jenry's body was sealed away in a mahogany casket and hoisted over his brothers' shoulders. In the mountainous countryside of Peru, hundreds of townspeople followed the brothers down a dirt road to a hand-dug gravesite to say their final goodbyes. Using a few pieces of rope, the villagers lowered the coffin into the ground and heaped soil on top.

Fourteen years after leaving his country, Jenry was finally home. But his sudden death was a startling reminder of exactly how much he had sacrificed to work in the U.S. Standing at Jenry's gravesite, his family felt both the burden of his loss and the weight of potentially losing their life savings to a woman they didn't know.

"It's like losing another son," Jesús says.

In the months since Velez filed for the rights to Jenry's estate, the two sides have prepared for an epic legal fight. A friend of the Jave-Castillo family who works as a private eye has combed for evidence that the marriage was arranged, while Velez's attorney is building a case to prove they were an ordinary couple that intended to start a life together.

Though the details of Jenry's case are unusual, it's not uncommon for sham marriages to go horribly sideways. Because they risk prosecution or deportation, foreign spouses are particularly vulnerable, often forced to cater to the whims of their sponsor, the American spouse.

"There are two common problems," says Wernick, the New York attorney who answers immigration questions in a twice-weekly syndicated column. "One is that before the process is over, the U.S. citizen demands more money. The other is that sometimes the U.S. citizen demands sexual relations when that was not originally contemplated."

Lackey, the Miami immigration attorney, says his past consultations with immigrants stuck in abusive marriages have been eye-opening. In one of the craziest cases, he remembers a woman showing him explicit text messages where her husband threatened to sabotage her green card application, saying, "If you don't suck it three times a week, you're done."

"That stuff makes your skin crawl," Lackey says. "If it's not sex, it's domestic violence."

And he says the abuse can come from women too. On one occasion, he was approached by an immigrant husband who said his American wife forced him to become an unpaid handyman for her friends at his own expense. In another case, Lackey remembers hearing about a woman who got belligerently drunk and smashed a guitar over her husband's head.

Neither Wernick nor Lackey was aware of any case like the one involving Jenry, though. Sham marriages are exceedingly rare, and because the majority of people who enter such arrangements aren't wealthy, there typically wouldn't be an estate to fight over even in the unlikely instance where one spouse were to die. Even then, it's almost impossible to prove that a marriage was fraudulently arranged, especially in situations where one spouse is dead, Wernick says.

"Finding the marriage was not bona fide — those cases typically involve a confession," he says. "Where one of the parties is deceased, how are you going to prove it was a phony marriage unless you can find a contract, a piece of paper, a witness who can testify to it?"

But Jesús says he has zero doubt that his brother's marriage was a fraud. When he began looking into the mystery bride, he learned that Velez worked as an administrative assistant for Jenry's main client in Coral Gables. But no one seemed to know exactly how they'd met. Velez and her attorney declined to answer questions from New Times about her and Jenry's relationship, and besides the marriage license, there's not a single public record to shed light on their courtship.

Jesús began talking to his brother's friends, and although Jenry was known to invite a long list of acquaintances to his raucous house parties, no one had ever met Velez, Jesús says. During weekly phone calls and weekend dinners, Jenry frequently turned to his older brother for advice, but he never mentioned having feelings for anyone but his live-in girlfriend, Gaudelia. In fact, ten days after the courthouse wedding to Velez, Jesús shot video of Jenry and Gaudelia dancing at their favorite Peruvian restaurant in Allapattah.

Jesús' legal team turned up more clues that the marriage was sketchy. Over the summer, the family's pro bono investigator discovered that Jenry's girlfriend was still using his bank accounts and living in the West Perrine home. Photos also show Jenry and Gaudelia celebrating Jesús' birthday and Valentine's Day together in the weeks after the wedding. If the relationship were real, Jesús asks, why can't anyone produce a photo of his brother and Velez together?

Armed with those arguments, the family's lawyers filed a petition in July to establish the marriage was a sham.

"Because the marriage was the product of an illegal contract, the marriage between Madeline Velez and [Jenry] is void," the petition reads. "As a direct and proximate result of the fraud... Madeline Velez is not entitled to any spousal rights or benefits under Florida law."

A Miami-Dade circuit judge has yet to rule on those claims. But Bugay, Velez's attorney, says she will be vindicated once a decision is made. He declined to provide any specifics about Jenry and Velez's relationship, saying he couldn't reveal his legal strategy while the case is pending.

"There are enough facts where we feel confident that the court will find that this was a legitimate marriage," he tells New Times.

Jesús Jave-Castillo and his family pitched in $85,000 to help his brother purchase a West Perrine home in 2013.
Jesús Jave-Castillo and his family pitched in $85,000 to help his brother purchase a West Perrine home in 2013.
Photo by Fujifilmgirl

At a crowded café inside the Barnes & Noble in Coral Gables, Jesús dabs his eyes as they well with tears. It's been six months since the death of his younger brother, but the mention of Jenry's name still brings up intense grief — and resentment that his family might lose everything he worked for.

"Madeline wants to keep all of my brother's belongings, things that don't belong to her," Jesús says in Spanish. "These things truly belong to my mother, who has worked hard her whole life."

As Jenry's family grapples with the legal battle with his widow, experts nationwide are still studying the effects of Trump's harsh stance on immigrants.

Although it's difficult to prove, immigration attorneys believe Trump's election has spurred countless couples to head to the altar. Just seven weeks after the votes were tallied, a New York Times analysis showed that clerks' offices across the nation were reporting a surge in marriage applications and courthouse wedding ceremonies. In New York City, the number of licenses issued in November 2016 jumped 23 percent compared to November 2015 figures, while Chicago's Cook County saw a nearly 40 percent increase. Miami-Dade County experienced a smaller "Trump bump" of 8.5 percent.

There's no way of knowing how many of those marriages involved fraud, but Lackey says there's no question that Trump's hard-line rhetoric has forced many undocumented immigrants to make tough decisions about how to stay in the country.

"The political climate is really bad," he says. "What I'm seeing, in one word, is fear. Fear to the hundredth power."

Among the administration's attacks on undocumented people, there are signs that a new crackdown on sham marriages could be in the works. In April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo about a "renewed commitment to criminal immigration enforcement" that directed federal prosecutors to make immigration cases, including marriage fraud, a higher priority.

"For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned," Sessions said in a speech announcing the initiative. "This is a new era. This is the Trump era."

That directive is now playing out in communities all across the country, even for couples in legitimate marriages. Since March, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have burst in on marriage petition interviews from Texas to Pennsylvania to round up undocumented immigrants in front of their horrified American spouses. Those arrested at marriage interviews include a Salvadoran man in Houston and a Honduran man with two children in Cincinnati. A Brazilian woman and Dominican man reporting for separate interviews with their spouses were among five immigrants detained at a government immigration services office in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Lackey says he also witnessed ICE agents arrest an immigrant spouse at an interview in Miami earlier this year.

"They've never been in the field offices, and now they're in the field office, the 'border boys,'" Lackey says of the agents. "That is a novelty."

In hindsight, Jesús believes those concerns were weighing on his brother's mind when Jenry brought up the idea of moving home. Although he can't say for sure why Jenry married Velez, he knows it was getting harder and harder for his brother to run a business and live his life without the proper papers.

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After Jenry's death, Jesús says he considered finally returning home, but the indignation of losing his family's investment is a cross he can't bear. Without Jenry, Jesús says he and his five brothers will be forced to work overtime to help care for their sickly father. The family's financial situation is dire enough that his 68-year-old mother might have to return to work in the rice fields.

"They'll be destroyed for the rest of their lives," he says.

Spurred into action by the situation, Jesús married his longtime girlfriend, a legal permanent resident from Ecuador, earlier this summer and has vowed to stay put until the score is settled. No matter how long it takes, he says, it's the right thing to do.

"Because my mother is not here physically, I want to be her representative," he says in Spanish. "I'm going to fight it on her behalf."

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