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How could hundreds of undocumented immigrants fall for adoption-for-citizenship scam?

Many of Helaman Hansen’s hundreds of victims first heard about his citizenship-through-adoption scheme in their neighborhood churches.

The 64-year-old Elk Grove businessman or his surrogates would show up promising undocumented immigrants that, for a fee, they’d be adopted into loving families and given fresh birth certificates and Social Security numbers, along with job training, to pursue the good life in the United States. Between October 2012 and January 2016, 471 immigrants from Mexico, Fiji, India, Ecuador, Laos and other nations paid between $150 to $10,000 apiece to join Hansen’s “Migration Program.”

Some victims completed the adoption stage of the scheme, but not one person obtained citizenship, according to evidence presented at Hansen’s trial, which concluded with his conviction Tuesday. Immigration experts said Hansen’s scheme was just one part of a growing industry that routinely offers false hopes to immigrants desperate for some path to legal residency. Federal authorities called Hansen’s scam possibly the largest case of its kind, with the highest number of victims, and the first ever to be prosecuted.

Victims interviewed by authorities include a couple who first heard one of Hansen’s agents solicit people “of good conduct and good morals” at Iglesia Bautista de Sacramento. Another victim, Reyes Medrano, a construction worker from Castro Valley, testified he and others were recruited at his church.

Federal prosecutors André Espinosa and Katherine Lydon charged that Hansen also relied on word-of-mouth and print advertising and dozens of videos in English, Spanish, Hindi and Hmong. His YouTube presence included the four-part video “Citizenship Through Adult Adoption.”

The Mexican consulate in Sacramento caught wind of the scam and did its best to alert U.S. and Mexican authorities, said Rodrigo Baez, the local Mexican consul of protection and legal affairs, who said he reported the scam to the FBI and U.S. immigration officials.

“We detected this scam more than a year ago,” Baez said. “We actually saved a few people from falling into it and have alerted all Mexican consulates and the embassy about it.”

He added, “This is just one of many fraudulent schemes that can harm many immigrants very easily, in a relatively short period of time, until they reach the surface and become detectable.”

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, other popular scams now targeting immigrants include offers to help people who were illegally brought into the country as children by enrolling them in a federal program protecting them from deportation. Immigration authorities are still accepting applications for the original program authorized by then-President George W. Bush, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, but not the expanded part of the program implemented by the Obama administration on Nov. 20, 2014.

Some immigrants also pay public notaries to act as their attorneys, although they’re not authorized to do so in the United States, the immigration agency said. In many Latin American countries, public notaries are allowed to provide legal services.

The agency advises immigrants to protect themselves by keeping confidential their A-numbers, or alien-registration numbers, which are assigned to permanent residents. Immigrants should also only use authorized attorneys. A list of authorized low- or no-cost attorneys can be found at www.justice.gov/eoir/list-pro-bono-legal-service-providers.

A jury in the U.S. district court in Sacramento found Hansen guilty on 12 counts of mail fraud, three counts of wire fraud and two counts of encouraging and inducing illegal immigration for private financial gain. Hansen faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count of mail and wire fraud, and up to 10 years and a $250,000 fine on each count of inducing illegal immigration. Hansen is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 3 by U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr.

According to court testimony, federal authorities were aware of Hansen’s activities from almost the start of his scheme but weren’t able to stop them.

As early as October 2012, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service warned Hansen that undocumented immigrants over age 16 could not be adopted into citizenship. Nevertheless Hansen and his agents – including some in Hawaii, Salt Lake City and Tonga – continued to recruit victims for another three years, collecting more than $1 million in fees, said Sacramento-based U.S. Attorney Phillip Talbert in a statement.

None of the victims is now facing deportation, Talbert said, part of department policy that does not subject to deportation undocumented immigrants who report crimes and cooperate with federal investigations.

In February, Talbert’s office convicted Mexican immigrant Martin Carranza-Sanchez for posing as a coyote, or migrant smuggler, to defraud undocumented immigrants and their U.S. relatives out of nearly $100,000.

The key to Hansen’s scheme was his own salesmanship, as he boasted to clients that he was an expert in constitutional law who intended to legalize half a million people and bring them out of the shadows. Hansen’s lawyers argued in court that he suffers from grandiosity, bipolar disorder and an inflated sense of importance.

An Australian turned U.S. citizen, Hansen used his connections at several Northern California churches to help recruit clients, according to court testimony.

One of Hansen’s victims, Gabriela de Jesus Hernandez, said that a pastor at Baptist Christian Church in Castro Valley told her husband he “could adopt him and make him a citizen.”

“This is a person who is very inspired but is mentally ill,” argued Assistant Federal Public Defender Tim Zindel. “He doesn’t listen; he likes attention; he calls himself ‘Dr. Hansen.’ He’s not a doctor.”

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to clarify that federal authorities are not accepting applications under the expanded portion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. They are accepting applications under the original part of the program.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini

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