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United States v. Li

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 26, 2014

United States of America, Plaintiff,
Grace Xunmei Li, Defendant.


DAVID G. CAMPBELL, District Judge.

In this case, the government asks the Court to revoke the citizenship of Defendant Grace Xunmei Li, alleging that she procured it illegally and through misrepresentations and concealments. The Court held a bench trial on August 14-15 and 18-19, 2014, at which 16 witnesses testified and several dozen exhibits were received in evidence. After carefully considering all the evidence, the Court concludes that Ms. Li's citizenship must be revoked.

I. Background Facts.

The parties stipulate to most of the following facts. Doc. 180 at 3-6. Other facts set forth in this section have been found by the Court based on clear, unequivocal, and convincing evidence.

Grace Xunmei Li ("Li") was born in the People's Republic of China on November 28, 1969. In 1991, Li's mother, who was residing in the United States, filed a Form I-130 Petition for Alien Relative on behalf of Li and her brother Richard. Richard Li became a lawful permanent resident through this petition in October 1998. Li came to the United States on a work visa at the age of 25 in 1995.

Li met Antony Bambrough, a naturalized U.S. citizen, shortly after her arrival, at a swimming pool in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The couple became romantically involved and married two years later in February 1997. They remained married for seven years, eventually divorcing in March 2004.

Li met Gang Chen ("Chen") in May 1997. In late December 1998, Li became pregnant by Chen with their daughter, Daphne Li-Chen. Daphne was born in Fort Lee on September 8, 1999.

In late 2000, Li and Chen moved to California with Daphne. Li had accepted a job in San Jose, and Chen decided to pursue business opportunities there. On February 7, 2002, their second daughter, Esther Jade Li-Chen, was born. Although Li and Chen were still living in California at the time, Li returned to Fort Lee, where her mother was living, for the birth.

On July 5, 2002, Li, Chen, and others participated in a church wedding ceremony in San Jose, California. The parties differ on whether Li and Chen intended this ceremony to be legally binding or merely an event staged to appease Chen's parents who were visiting from China. Li was fully aware at the time that she was married to Bambrough.

Before the ceremony, Li and Chen went to the Santa Clara County Clerk's Office and applied for a marriage license. After the ceremony, a copy of the license was sent to the County Recorder's Office, where it was duly recorded.

Two years later, and eight months after her divorce from Bambrough, Li filed a Form N-400 Application for Naturalization with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services ("USCIS"). The form was filed on September 24, 2004. On April 18, 2005, Li met with Officer Que-Hong Nguyen Cass for her naturalization interview. Li's application for naturalization was approved that day and she became a U.S. citizen on May 5, 2005.

In 2008, the government charged Li and Chen with conspiracy to commit naturalization fraud under 18 U.S.C. § 371 and unlawful procurement of naturalization under 18 U.S.C. § 1425. In August 2009, Li pled guilty to violating 18 U.S.C. § 1015(a) in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. This crime involves knowingly making a false statement, under oath, in a matter relating to naturalization or citizenship under the laws of the United States.

II. Li's Marriage to Chen.

The primary factual dispute in this case concerns Li's wedding ceremony with Chen. The government contends that this event was intended to be - and was - a valid and binding wedding ceremony. Li contends that the event was staged to appease Chen's family and was never intended by her or Chen to be a legal marriage.

The government must prove its case by "clear, unequivocal, and convincing evidence." United States v. Arango, 670 F.3d 988, 992 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing United States v. Dang, 488 F.3d 1135, 1139 (9th Cir. 2007)). The government's evidence must not "leave the issue in doubt." Dang, 488 F.3d at 1139. Applying this high standard, the Court finds that the July 5, 2002 wedding was understood by Li and Chen to be just what it appeared to be - a legal marriage under the laws of the State of California.

This order will set forth some of the evidence that supports this finding. The Court will not attempt to describe all of the supporting evidence.

A. The Li-Chen Relationship.

Li and Chen met in May 1997 when Chen attended a party in honor of Li's graduation from college. At the time, Li and Bambrough had been married only a few months. Li and Chen had a romantic liaison in December 1998 that resulted in Li's first pregnancy. Daphne was born nine months later in September 1999. Ex. 22. By this time, it was clear that Li and Chen were involved in a romantic relationship.

Li added Chen to her bank account in November 1999. Ex. 16. Various witnesses and exhibits established that Li and Chen lived together in Fort Lee, New Jersey, both at an apartment at 2486 8th Street originally rented by Li's mother, and at a home purchased by Li and her mother at 7 Hazlett Drive. Li's marriage to Bambrough had, by this time, grown cold. Bambrough testified that he and Li had an intimate relationship only for a few months after their marriage in February of 1997, and that she was no longer spending any time at his apartment by August of 1998.

B. Testimony of Friends.

Sherry Chen (no relation to Gang Chen) knew Li and her brother Richard in China. When Li and Chen moved to California in 2000, they stayed for approximately one month in Sherry's house on Briarleaf Circle. Li told Sherry that she and Chen had been together for a couple of years. Li and Chen ultimately purchased a house across the street from Sherry at 1217 Briarleaf Circle. Ex. 37.

Sherry saw Li and Chen daily after they purchased the house. Sherry testified that Li and Chen seemed to love and adore each other. This testimony, which the Court found credible, contradicts Li's assertion that Chen would come and go as he pleased and that she had no intention of forming a long-term relationship with him.

Sherry testified that she knew of Li and Chen's wedding plans before her first baby was born in November 2001. Sherry had assumed that Li and Chen were already married, but Li told her they were planning to marry and that Li wanted their relationship to be legal. Li never told Sherry that the marriage was not real or that it was being done simply to appease Chen's parents.

Sherry and her husband participated in Li and Chen's wedding on July 5, 2002. Sherry saw Li almost daily after the wedding. Sherry testified that Li and Chen always called each other husband and wife.

Eleanor Shum also lived on Briarleaf Circle and was a neighbor and friend of Li, Chen, and Sherry. Shum married Simon Ye on September 23, 2001. Shortly after Shum's wedding, Li told Shum that Li planned to marry Chen and asked for information about the vendors who provided services at Shum's wedding.

Shum testified that she and Li's other friends were happy that Li and Chen were planning to marry. She saw Li and Chen frequently both before and after the wedding, and testified that they seemed to have a good relationship. Following the wedding - which Shum described as "lavish" - Shum heard Li and Chen refer to each other as husband and wife. Li never suggested to Shum that the wedding was somehow related to Chen's parents or their visit from China.

Simon Ye also testified about his interactions with Li and Chen while they all lived on Briarleaf Circle. He said that he and others were happy when they learned of the wedding plans. Li and Chen never told him or their other friends that the wedding was not real or was related in some way to Chen's parents. Following the wedding, which Ye attended, Ye believed that Li and Chen were legally married. He testified that they always referred to each other as husband and wife.[1]

C. Testimony of the Pastors.

Pastor Randy Hunter, a Lutheran minister from Wisconsin, first met Li and Chen in 2000 when they visited his church. He came to know them because a longtime parishioner in his church, Tammy Woller, married Li's brother, Richard. Pastor Hunter testified that he saw Li and Chen several times and even baptized their daughter, Daphne.

Pastor Hunter told Li and Chen they should get married. Li responded that they were planning to marry and eventually asked him to give a sermon at the wedding. Because they were living in California at the time of the wedding, Pastor Hunter introduced them to Pastor Jon M. Mahnke, a Lutheran minister in California. Li and Chen never told Pastor Hunter that they did not intend a legal marriage.

Pastor Hunter and his daughter flew to California for the wedding at the expense of Li and Chen. He delivered a sermon and described the wedding as an elegant affair. Pastor Hunter testified that he would not have participated in the event had he known it was intended to be a mock wedding ceremony.

Pastor John Mahnke met Li and Chen when they were referred by Pastor Hunter. The meeting occurred a few weeks before the wedding. He met with them several times to review plans for the event.

Exhibit 43 is the script Pastor Mahnke prepared for the Li-Chen wedding. Pastor Mahnke testified that he reviewed the script with Li and Chen word-for-word before the wedding ceremony. This review included the portion of the script where Pastor Mahnke declares that Li and Chen are "husband and wife, according to the ordinance of God, and according to the laws of the State of California[.]" Ex. 43 at USA5052.

Pastor Mahnke instructed Li and Chen to obtain a marriage license. He told them the license was needed for the marriage to be legal, and that he could not perform the ceremony without it. Pastor Mahnke identified Exhibit 41 as the marriage license secured by Li and Chen and provided to him before the wedding. The license states that both Li and Chen had no previous marriages, even though both of them admit that they had been married previously and were still married to their spouses in July 2002. A rehearsal for the wedding was held shortly before the actual marriage date, followed by a rehearsal dinner at a Chinese restaurant.

Pastor Mahnke officiated at the ceremony on July 5, 2002. He did not deviate from the text in Exhibit 43. When he asked Li and Chen if they accepted each other as husband and wife, they said yes. They exchanged rings, and Pastor Mahnke declared them husband and wife according to the laws of the State of California.

Pastor Mahnke explained to Li and Chen before the wedding that he would send the marriage certificate to Santa Clara County for recording. This was his normal practice, and he would not have allowed anyone else to discharge this duty. Following the wedding, Pastor Mahnke had the license signed by Li and Chen, as well as Li's brother Richard and his wife Tammy as witnesses. He then signed the document and gave it to the church secretary to mail to the County.

Pastor Mahnke testified that the County issues only one copy of a marriage license. He did not give a copy of the license to Li or Chen or anybody else.

Pastor Mahnke would not have performed the marriage if he had known that Li and Chen intended it to be a mock ceremony. He testified that such an event would constitute mockery of God. He further testified that he could not see how Li or Chen could have been confused about the legal consequences of the marriage given his review with them of the wedding script, ...

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