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Being a Cuban has its benefits in the United States, and some apparently are willing to pay up to $20,000 to become one -- at least on phony papers.
Federal authorities on Wednesday announced the arrests of 20 people allegedly involved in a widespread immigration scheme in which most falsely claimed to be Cubans to gain legal residency in the United States.
Officials are calling the scheme a new trend in immigration fraud, centered primarily in South Florida because of the large Cuban population. Of those arrested, 16 had addresses in Broward or Miami-Dade counties, and most entered the country illegally, officials said.
"Fraud cannot be the foundation of one's pursuit of the American dream," said U.S. Attorney Wifredo A. Ferrer, who represents the Southern District of Florida. "By committing immigration fraud, these defendants sought to cheat the immigration system and those who immigrate to this country lawfully."
Under federal law passed in response to Fidel Castro's regime, Cubans who reach and touch U.S. soil automatically qualify to obtain legal residency after a year and one day, and are allowed to live and work here legally. Immigrants from other countries often have to wait years, if not decades, to qualify for U.S. residency, while others are not allowed to live here.
Some of those arrested this week came primarily from Central and South America, including Argentina, Costa Rica, Venezuela and Mexico, said Special Agent in Charge Alysa D. Erichs, who heads the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations in South Florida.
The agency, along with several other federal investigators, began casting light on the immigration fraud in August, when they kicked off Operation Havana Gateway. In addition to the 20 people arrested this week, the operation netted 14 other suspects since August.
Though authorities say it is unclear how many people have illegally obtained residency through this scheme, they say there may be up to hundreds of cases locally that they are unaware of.
And they say many more cases are in the rest of the United States, including states in the Southwest, where some have crossed the U.S.-Mexican border and claimed to be Cubans, Erichs said.
"We are now putting the word out that we are going after these cases," Erichs said. "These arrests should send a clear message that we will target anyone who tries to obtain immigration benefits fraudulently."
Of those arrested this week, two suspects -- Luis Enrique Legon Mena, 44, of Miramar, and Miriam Licea, 57, of Miami -- allegedly were vendors who created and sold fake Cuban birth certificates and passports.
Mean and Licea, who operated separately from each other, face up to 20 years in federal prison, officials said.
The other 18 arrested are accused of seeking the services of various vendors, according to court documents. The customers, who paid between $1,000 and $20,000, used fake documents to apply for residency, commonly referred to as a green card, authorities said. They face up to 10 years in federal prison and then deportation.
Most of those arrested made their first appearances in federal courts in Broward and Miami-Dade this week.
At an agency building on Wednesday, agents displayed evidence confiscated from prior similar cases.
The documents included fake Cuban birth certificates and authentic ones obtained through fraud. Also on display was a Cuban passport and sheets containing "official" blue stamps reportedly used by Cuban government officials to authenticate such documents.
In a typical scheme, vendors create fake birth certificates or somehow obtain blank certificates from Cuba. The vendors primarily operate by word of mouth.
Those seeking residency illegally typically pay a vendor a down payment for such phony documents. The documents then are used to apply for residency. After waiting a year and a day, the applicant then goes through a screening interview with federal authorities.
Because of the lack of relationship between the United States and Cuba, investigators have no official method to determine which documents are authentic. So they conduct the screening interviews to catch potential fraud.
Such interviews usually include trivial questions about Cuban neighborhoods and further tests for Cuban dialect or terminologies, said agency spokesman Nestor Yglesias.
"The interviews look for red flags that are then investigated further," he said.
If the applicant passes the interview, the applicant pays the rest of the funds to the illegitimate vendor after obtaining a green card.
The disparity between the welcome afforded Cubans and those from other nations flows from the Cuban Adjustment Act, the decades-old immigration law that allows for residency after a year and a day and eases the path to citizenship for those fleeing the Castro regime.
Even conservative lawmakers, such as Cuban-American U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have suggested that the law may no longer be warranted.
"It's becoming increasingly difficult to justify it for my colleagues, when there are people who come to the United States ... and within a year and a day are traveling to Cuba 25 and 30 times a year," Rubio told journalists recently. "That being said, it's important for us to remind people that Cuba is a tyrannical regime."
The law is not likely to change soon, however. In serious discussions on immigration reform, the Cuban Adjustment Act is not often on the table.
Staff writer Mike Clary and staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.
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