Awfully Wedded Wife

Ivan sits in the passenger seat of a dusty white SUV, fidgeting nervously. The trim Uruguayan shakes a Marlboro loose from the pack and stares out the window as if he's searching for something. He has the rough hands of a carpenter but is dressed more like a J. Crew model in a starched, black, buttoned-down shirt and jeans. His smooth, handsome face is childlike for a man of 34, but today, his brow is furrowed. It's 9:50 a.m. Almost time.

After he and a friend roll past the suburban shopping centers and faded, one-story houses of east Hialeah, they pull into a parking lot next to a towering gray courthouse on East Sixth Street. A portly, wavy-haired woman in a purple blouse is waiting. Her name is Eunice Lopez, and when Ivan spots her, he feels nauseated.

Outside the car, he twists his head around to see if anyone is watching, then walks over to her.

"Hi," he says softly, carefully. "How do you want to do this?"

"We'll do it first," she replies. "Then the money."

With businesslike efficiency, the unlikely couple marches into the courthouse. They step through a metal detector and turn down a hallway that smells like bleach. At a sign that reads "Marriage Licenses," they stop. The dull beige room is empty, aside from an older couple that waits joylessly on a wooden bench.

Soon, Ivan and Eunice are ushered into a locked room. After taking a deep breath, he holds out a clammy hand. She reaches for it, and he feels her plump fingers lock with his. "Even the moment of the wedding, I knew I was doing something bad," he would say later. "But it was like watching a movie; it didn't feel like it was happening to me."

The ceremony room is nothing special: small and white with forest-green carpeting and a cheap black podium as the centerpiece. The bride and groom stand awkwardly in front of a black-haired notary who prepares to power through the vows.

To one side are hokey pink cutouts of cupids taped to a window — leftovers from Valentine's Day. To the other: a painting of a woman in a wedding gown bent happily over a contract, signing her name. When it comes time to kiss his new wife, Ivan closes his eyes. Afterward, underneath an arch, they pose for photos. Eunice holds a bouquet of plastic baby's breath.

Ivan (not his real name) is a virgin when it comes to breaking the law. But he plays it cool once they've left the courthouse: He slips Eunice an envelope. Inside is $4,000 in crisp $100 bills.

Ivan's May 2006 marriage to Eunice Lopez was a guaranteed way to get a green card. That much he knew. But two days after the wedding, he couldn't find her anywhere. "That's when I thought, I am such an asshole," he says. "I tried her cell phone, but it was disconnected. I went to her house, but neighbors told me she had moved."

It got worse. He would later learn that she had wed at least nine other men — and possibly as many as 16. Together, Eunice Lopez, boyfriend Rodneys Gonzalez, and her Hialeah-based Cuban-American family have racked up 32 felony charges of bigamy over five years.

The sham is among the clumsiest and most lucrative marriage operations ever prosecuted in Miami-Dade County, the nation's most concentrated immigrant community. With phony weddings going for up to $15,000 a pop, the clan garnered hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Even bigger — likely the largest sting of its kind — was "Operation Knot So Fast." Four months ago, Central Florida prosecutors indicted 83 people in one week for running and participating in Mafia-style businesses that paired Americans with foreigners seeking status. That trumped a 2006 Southern California crackdown called "Operation Newlywed Game" that indicted 44 and one in North Texas that took in 16.

With an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States — and both presidential candidates pushing for stronger border and workplace enforcement — busts will certainly rise. Even so, well-executed rings are almost unstoppable. "You have a better chance of getting hit by lightning" than being arrested for marriage fraud, says Michael Cutler, who worked as an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent and adjudicator in New York for 30 years. "[Authorities] don't have the will or the resources."

A few days before Thanksgiving 2004, James Sirls awoke hung over in a boxy white van near Orlando International Airport. He pulled a crumpled bar napkin from his pocket and scanned an address scratched in pen. Heavy-set and happy-go-lucky, the 42-year-old had a scruffy mustache-goatee combo. He stared down at the address; it defined his mission for the morning. With a turn of the ignition, he started the van and drove to an office sandwiched between a DMV branch and a Wendy's in an L-shaped complex off State Road 50 near Clermont.

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Natalie O'Neill