Fake religious group defrauded $4 million from 1,400 immigrants

A Broward husband and wife who operated a $4 million fraud that callously exploited the dreams of more than 1,400 illegal immigrants were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on Friday.

Alberto Alers, 60, and Ana Zoila Caceres, 61, were the ringleaders of a purported religious organization called Seamens Harvest Ministries that operated out of offices in a Plantation strip mall and the Swap Shop flea market. Both pleaded guilty earlier this year to their roles in the fraud.

On Friday, Alers was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison and Caceres to eight.

The couple forfeited their Plantation home to the government and the judge will decide how much restitution they owe at a Jan. 4 hearing in federal court in Miami.

Alers and Caceres filed so-called religious worker immigration applications for undocumented residents in exchange for fees or "donations" that averaged $6,800 per person, prosecutor John Gonsoulin said.

Alers admitted he posed as an immigration officer with a badge and gun and threatened to deport clients who complained.

Prosecutors said Alers, a convicted robber and burglar, was a persuasive salesman who conned people who entered or remained in the country illegally into thinking he could get them legal resident status.

Caceres handled the finances and used local casinos to launder massive amounts of money, prosecutors said. She brought cash from clients to the casinos, gambled, then cashed out with "clean" currency, they said.

Both apologized for their actions in court.

Liz Ramdass Ben-David, 52, of Hollywood, told the Sun Sentinel she lost more than $10,000 to the fraud and is still trying to sort out the mess created by Alers lying about her case to immigration officials. She married a U.S. citizen, hired a lawyer and is trying to get legal status.

A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Ben-David said she came to the U.S. on a one-year visa 15 years ago to try to find her children, who were with their father.

Ben-David stayed on illegally after her visa expired and scraped out a living working as a cleaner and babysitter.

A friend recommended the "ministry"office in the Swap Shop flea market in 2006, but she said Alers just took her money and filed immigration forms she later found out were full of lies.

"We are poor people, we are struggling to survive, we are trying to become legal to get a better life," Ben-David said. "I don't know how another human being can treat a person like this and take our money when we have worked so hard for it. He was a multi-millionaire."

Victims who want to claim restitution should contact federal officials at 866-347-2423 or online.

pmcmahon@tribune.com, 954-356-4533 or Twitter @SentinelPaula

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