From the NY Times:
Mr. León and his wife are among at least 120 illegal immigrants in the New York region, most of them Ecuadoreans, who the authorities say were defrauded out of a total of nearly $1 million by Mr. Gonzalez, 56, and two accomplices who were arrested in March and April. The authorities say it was one of the region’s largest cases of immigration fraud in recent years.
Immigration fraud has become widespread as hucksters, many of them newcomers themselves, take advantage of illegal immigrants desperate to legalize their status yet hesitant to seek help from law enforcement agencies for fear of deportation. Pastors accused of fleecing the faithful are nothing new, either: In April, a former minister of a church in Forest Hills, Queens, and four others were indicted on charges of swindling investors, many of them elderly or disabled church members, of more than $9 million.
But the story of the Corona scheme suggests how especially insidious immigration fraud may be when practiced by leaders of a church — the institution that many immigrants turn to for friendship and guidance in a foreign land.
Immigrant advocates and law enforcement officials in New York and across the country say that immigration-fraud schemes operating out of religious institutions appear to be rare. But some may go unreported, given illegal immigrants’ suspicions of the government and the transience of many small, independent churches.
Prosecutors say Mr. Gonzalez and Gerardo Bello, 21, set up their church, La Iglesia Roca de la Salvación Eterna, in the cellar of a brick house in Corona early last year. The authorities said that it was unclear how large a congregation the men had built, but that neither was ordained.
Mr. Gonzalez, officials said, is an Ecuadorean immigrant, too — in the United States illegally and subject to deportation. He and Mr. Bello face charges of grand larceny, fraud and possession of stolen property. Mr. Gonzalez’s sister, Maria Gonzalez, 52, is charged with grand larceny and possession of stolen property. Their lawyers did not respond to telephone messages.