Three leaders of a Philippines-based church were charged this week with a massive immigration scam that authorities said saw them entice immigrants to come to the U.S., fool Homeland Security into admitting them, then sending them out on the streets to beg for money.
The cult-like Kingdom of Jesus Christ told the U.S. government it needed visas for people — often-times young children — to come to the U.S. to perform music.
But when they arrived, they were forced to turn over their passports and turned out on the streets to solicit money for the church.
Beggars told donors money would go to impoverished children in the Philippines, but the cash — as much as $20 million from 2014 to 2019 — actually lined the pockets of church leaders, prosecutors said.
Church leaders would punish some beggars who didn’t bring in enough cash by isolating them and denying them food.
Those that brought in the most money were set up for sham marriages or bogus student visas to keep them in the U.S. longer, prosecutors said.
Investigators said the church leaders kept sets of wedding rings to use when they needed to back up the sham wedding stories. At least 82 church marriages were identified by the investigation.
“Defendants’ livelihood involved lying to immigration authorities to perpetrate a massive human-trafficking scheme over many years,” U.S. Attorney Nicola T. Hanna said in court filings asking a judge to deny the three defendants bail.
Charged were Guia Cabactulan, 59, a legal immigrant identified as the head administrator of the church here in the U.S., and two underlings, Marissa Duenas, 41, and Amanda Estopare, 48.
The FBI, in an affidavit to the court, said the church referred to the beggars, who were supposed to be in the U.S. on tourist visas, as “full time workers.” Those who did the best were labeled “assets.”
Quotas were set for how much they were to earn through begging, with More expected during the end-of-year holiday season.
Investigators said ex-church members came forward to blow the whistle on the operation,
They described a cult-like environment, being forced to sign commitment letters surrendering “attachments” to their family.
The church also took steps to prevent people leaving — including one former member who was accused by a current member of sexual abuse of a child, the FBI agent said in the affidavit. Other ex-members said they feared being beaten or killed.
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