'I will never again break the law': O.C. woman goes to prison for sham marriage and visa business

An Orange County woman was sentenced Monday to four months in prison for running a fraudulent marriage and visa business with her family — an enterprise that prosecutors contended netted up to $60,000 per phony marriage for mostly Indian citizens who wished to stay in the U.S.

Nisha Bhargava, of Yorba Linda, pleaded guilty in January to a misdemeanor count of possessing identification documents to defraud the U.S., according to her plea agreement filed in federal court. In addition to sentencing Bhargava to prison, U.S. District Judge George H. Wu ordered her to pay a $10,000 fine, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles.

Bhargava, her husband and her daughter were arrested in April 2011 on suspicion of immigration fraud charges. About 20 suspicious visa petitions were linked to the trio’s Maple Eagle Immigration Consultants, a now-shuttered Cerritos-based business.

The business would promise $2,000 payments to low-income U.S. citizens to entice them into marrying foreign nationals, according to a complaint filed in federal court. Couples would pose for photos and open bank accounts to give the union an aura of legitimacy, federal prosecutors contended.

Authorities launched their investigation in 2009 when they became suspicious about similarities among applications from the family’s immigration consultancy. On some applications, the same "spouses" and marriage witnesses were used, federal authorities said in 2011.

Bhargava played the role of assistant to her husband’s immigration fraud scheme by preparing documents and helping to open bank accounts, prosecutors said.

Her husband, Ajit Bhargava, pleaded guilty in 2014 to a felony count of conspiracy to commit marriage and visa fraud. He’s scheduled to be sentenced in July.

The couple’s daughter, Runjhun Bhargava, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a special diversion program. After she completed the program in October 2015, her plea was withdrawn and criminal charges were dismissed, according to court papers.

Prosecutors recommended a short prison term for Nisha Bhargava, who was born in New Delhi, came to Southern California in the 1980s and is a U.S. citizen. Her attorney said the case brought shame upon her family in the U.S. and in India. Bhargava begged the judge to show her mercy in a letter filed in court.

“I made bad choices and I take responsibility for my actions. I am sorry that I showed such disrespect to my adopted country,” Bhargava wrote. “I am humbly asking you for your mercy,” she wrote before ending her letter with a promise: “I assure you that I will never again break the law.”

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

Twitter: @MattHjourno

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