By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
Additional reporting by Chris Ziegler
Everyone complains about the fluorescent lighting. Everyone has a problem with the sterility and the cold, ominous glow. But I don't suppose the Homeland Security agent really cared if I was comfortable.
It was supposed to be my last job. I was going to take whatever money I could from this hopeful Chinese immigrant—the last of eight—and start a new life in San Francisco. And then six agents with fanny packs and tapered jeans walked into the immigration office in Santa Ana, handcuffed me and marched me upstairs to an interrogation room. They read me my rights and told me the government considered me a terrorist.
I stared down at my clenched fists, at a dossier documenting four years of false marriages set up by the Chinese mafia, and at a sticky little pool of tears and snot on the cheap Formica table.
"We know you did it," they told me. "We can book you into jail until your lawyer arrives, or you can make this easy on yourself and talk to us now."
I cried for an hour, thinking of my sisters and how they would look at me. When you get caught, you automatically think you got a raw deal. I'm sure the eight men I swindled—knowingly and unknowingly—felt their deal was the rawest.
In the summer of 2000, my mother approached me with a fantastic idea about "halfway marriages." She told me that I could receive $5,000 for spending two weeks in China, parading around as someone's fiancée. I was a dimwitted, self-serving 20-year-old. I said yes.
Let's not talk about what I'd spend it on.
I decided to take my eighth and final dive into the marriage ring when I was asked to marry a Chinese man in the United States in December 2002. I was told I had nothing to worry about, that I would emerge with $10,000 in one hand and the promise of a much better life in the other. We married that same month in Santa Ana. We hired an immigration lawyer to prepare us for the interview. We received word that our interview was to take place on Oct. 22, 2003—six days before my 24th birthday and eight days before my departure for San Francisco. We went over minute details. I remembered what kind of underwear he wore. I rehearsed fake memories of how we fell in love. He learned how to speak English. I picked up some Chinese. We had a photo album—I'd spent hours constructing it—about our life together. I thought out every line I'd use on the immigration officer.
We sat in the waiting room at the federal building, sweating and shaking, nervous and anxious. My fiancé had high hopes of building a new life in America. He wanted to open his own teppan restaurant. When the agents walked in, he never knew what hit him.
My contacts had told me not to marry more than two or three times. But I got desperate, and I got lazy, and I got greedy.
I was born in Salt Lake City at the end of 1979, surrounded by snow and Mormons. Let's pretend for a moment that I was lucid at birth, that I witnessed my mother crying about a man she didn't love and my father mortified by a lover as beautiful as she was unsatisfied. They separated a few years later, and I was left with my mother, a Vietnamese pop star always out of town—singing in Australia and France and making music videos with wigs and thick makeup. My dad played billiards and finally settled in Hawaii, finding himself a wife 10 years his junior. We moved to Orange County. I had a very lonely childhood—a lot of imaginary friends and several au pairs. But my mother's only hope was to give her daughter a leg up in life. It wasn't her intention that I'd get addicted to marrying for money.
My mother knew I was in a financial tight spot, and neither of us really had a lot of extra money lying around. Times were tough for has-been pop stars; no one wanted to bill her except second-rate nightclubs in Huntington Beach. So it was a typical evening: after eating dinner, we sat together on uncomfortable metal chairs. As I shuffled my left ass cheek up and let the right one comfortably settle, she shifted out of a conversation about her bad lovers—she was beautiful and attracted the worst kind of men—and said, "Hey, do you want to get married in China for money?"
I urged her to tell me more. But she couldn't—this was only something her friends were casually discussing at a dinner party over cold sliced pig ears and Heineken. She patted my hands—which were shaking from excitement over the prospect of money—and said she could talk to someone, and they would speak to someone else, and that I could get more information in a few days.
And then, after a few days, the phone chirped at me. "So, I hear you're interested in going to China," a husky male voice with a heavy Asian accent said.