Authorities arrested 11 people Monday in an alleged U.S. work-visa scam that raked in more than $50 million from thousands of Brazilians since 2002. Some of those scammed went to the U.S. and wound up as illegal aliens because promised jobs didn't exist.
Brazilians seeking temporary working visas were charged up to $15,000 each in what a statement from the U.S. Consulate called one of the largest cases of U.S. visa fraud ever. Similar schemes were uncovered in Russia, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Romania and the United Arab Emirates.
Police are still searching for seven suspects, including one who holds U.S. citizenship, said Aline Alves, the state prosecutor. Assisted by U.S. officials, Alves headed the investigation into the fraud in Latin America's largest city.
Alves said unidentified U.S.-based immigration lawyers and Brazilian middlemen hatched the scheme by getting temporary visas authorized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and then charging Brazilians exorbitant rates to land those visas tied to jobs that rarely existed.
If a U.S. company told a lawyer it needed 50 temporary workers, for example, the lawyer submitted falsified paperwork to Homeland Security claiming 200 were needed, Alves said.
Brazilian middlemen then sought out as many as 1,000 visa seekers and coached them for their interviews at the consulate, she said. Some had their passports kept from them until they paid the illegal fee.
While some Brazilians ended up matched with jobs in the United States, many more paid the fees, received visas and arrived in the U.S. to find they had no job, which made them illegal. An even larger number of Brazilians paid the fees and were refused visas.
Alves said 1,800 victims had been identified so far, though she did not know how many received visas and went to the United States. While Brazilian authorities believe the number of victims could rise to 9,000, the U.S. Consulate in Sao Paulo estimated there were 4,500.
The consulate declined comment on how many visas were actually granted in the scheme, but estimated that the people running it received $54 million.
Victims were promised good jobs in hotels, hospitals and factories paying $15 an hour for up to nine months, but those who got jobs were actually paid between $6 and $8 per hour.
Those who obtained visas but arrived to find no jobs waiting were "in miserable situations in the United States, illegal in the country," Alves said. "Some went hungry, and desperately returned to Brazil through countries like Mexico and Argentina."
Officials from the U.S. Consulate in Sao Paulo said American lawyers suspected of involvement are under investigation but none has been charged.