Four South Floridians posed as representatives of a Christian organization to rip off $4 million from vulnerable immigrants.
Seamens Harvest Ministries operated out of a storefront in a Plantation strip mall, claiming to file so-called religious worker immigration applications for undocumented residents in exchange for large cash "donations."
More than 1,400 victims thought they would wind up with coveted green cards that would allow them to work legally.
The defendants capitalized on immigrants' hopes by using religion to trick them into believing the fraudsters had genuine intentions, prosecutors said.
"The defendants lined their pockets for more than five years, but not a single alien obtained their green card," prosecutor Timothy Cole said.
All four defendants — Alberto Alers and his wife, Ana Zoila Caceres, her son Jesus Manuel Dorado and office worker Yvette Rossy Reyes — have pleaded guilty to their roles in the fraud.
On Friday, Dorado, 27, was sentenced to five years in federal prison. Prosecutors will seek more than $1 million in restitution from him at a future court hearing. His three codefendants will be sentenced in the next few weeks.
Alers, 60, was the primary salesman who pitched the fraud to the clients, who had either entered or remained in the country illegally, according to court records. He was also the enforcer who threated clients if they complained about not receiving a green card.
He pretended to be a deportation officer and kept a badge, gun and handcuffs visible in his office during meetings with clients and threatened to have numerous people deported.
Caceres, 61, was "the brains of the operation" who handled the finances and recruited staff, including her son, Dorado, a salesman who was often referred to as "the attorney", and Reyes, 24, an office worker.
Alers, Caceres and Dorado often went to a local casino "to gamble the money (often in amounts exceeding $10,000) extracted from the victims," prosecutors wrote.
Victims said they were told the "ministry" was a Christian charitable group that could help them get legal status to remain in the country. The organization filed forms that claimed the applicants were religious workers who had done missionary jobs for years and wanted to remain in the United States. The group also claimed to do work on behalf of needy people in South America and the Caribbean.
Alers admitted that he told clients they would have to donate $6,860 to the group and pay other application fees. He also taught customers how to fraudulently obtain Florida driver's licenses to help them appear to be legitimate residents.
When the office received hundreds of notices from federal authorities rejecting the religious applications, the workers changed methods and began submitting fraudulent asylum applications and other immigration requests.
Prosecutors said the scam was particularly unsavory because it preyed on vulnerable people who worked hard in menial jobs to earn the money that was taken from them.
One South Florida couple who wrote to the sentencing judge said that a friend referred them to Seamens Harvest and they believed it was legitimate. Albert Aga and Eva Celari said Dorado told them it would cost $25,000 to file applications for their family. They borrowed money to make payments and Celari received what she thought was a genuine employment authorization card.
Within a year, the couple and their two children were taken into custody by immigration agents who told them the card was fake. Aga was locked up for a month. Dorado refused to help and the couple has hired an immigration lawyer to try to gain legal status.
"We have suffered great financial loss, emotional and mental stress, embarrassment and hurt at the hands of Seamens Harvest Ministries and our children were fearful that they would be taken from us," Aga and Celari wrote.
Dorado, who got a reduced sentence because he cooperated against his mother and stepfather, sobbed in court after apologizing. He said he was "sorry and ashamed" of his actions.
His lawyer, Alvin Entin, said Dorado left the criminal conspiracy two years before the suspects were arrested last year, distanced himself from the misconduct and started a legitimate business. When undercover agents taped conversations with him at his new business, they found he was acting legally, Entin said.
U.S. District Judge Robert Scola Jr. also ordered Dorado to surrender to immigration authorities for deportation upon his release from prison. But Dorado has renounced his Venezuelan citizenship and assumed his father's Cuban citizenship, according to court records, which could allow him to remain here because Cuban citizens who make it to the U.S. are not deported to their homeland.
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