U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 20 people in Florida on Tuesday and Wednesday for allegedly pretending to be Cubans to obtain residence or citizenship.
Most of the arrests were made in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, but others took place in Naples and Jacksonville.
The arrests were the result of an investigation, dubbed Havana Gateway, by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, unit in conjunction with Customs and Border Protection, Citizenship and Immigration Services and the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service.
The case is the second significant one involving false claims of Cuban citizenship. Earlier this year, a federal judge in Miami sentenced four members of a ring that sold fake Cuban birth certificates to undocumented immigrants so they could seek permanent residence by posing as Cuban refugees. ICE officials said the earlier case and Havana Gateway were not connected.
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This week’s case involves suspects who were living in cities including Davie, Doral, Hollywood, Miami, Miami Beach, Miramar, North Miami and Sunrise.
Under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, Cubans arriving in the United States without a visa can stay and then apply for permanent residence after a year and a day in the country.
According to federal officials familiar with the case, almost all of the detainees posed as Cubans to obtain immigration papers. ICE did not specify what documents the suspects submitted to immigration authorities in their attempt to obtain residence or citizenship.
But in a telephone interview on Wednesday, the special agent in charge of HSI Miami, Alysa Erichs, said that “in general” they used Cuban birth certificates, some of which were legitimate but containing false information, and others counterfeit.
Erichs said many undocumented immigrants who obtain Cuban birth certificates come from South and Central America. She said most were Venezuelans.
At their first appearance in Miami federal court on Wednesday, some of the suspects disclosed their nationalities. One said he had dual citizenship from Colombia and Israel; another said he had a Venezuelan passport; a third said she had a U.S. passport and also one from Cuba.
“These individuals came here seeking the freedom and benefits this country provides to Cuban nationals,” said Erichs. “The operation identified and addressed vulnerabilities in the application process . . . These arrests by HSI should send a clear message that we will target anyone who tries to obtain immigration benefits fraudulently.”
She also said that operation Havana Gateway, which began in August 2012, would continue and that agents expected to make more arrests.
The ICE statement identified the detainees by name but did not say which countries they came from.
Miriam Licea, 57, of Miami, was charged with helping two people file fraudulent applications claiming Cuban citizenship. The statement said Licea’s arrest was linked to a previous case in which a defendant confessed to paying $15,000 for a fake Cuban birth certificate.
In court, Licea said she had U.S. and Cuban passports. She also said that she did not want bail because her family had no money to pay it. However, the private attorney standing next to her told her that her family had hired him and was willing to pay the $50,000 bond.
Another defendant mentioned in the ICE statement, Luis Enrique Legon Mena, 44, of Miramar, was charged with conspiring to persuade foreign nationals to stay illegally in the United States, apparently a reference to his alleged role as a “facilitator” in providing fake documents to undocumented immigrants. The statement did not say whether Legon Mena is Cuban.
Another defendant who appeared in court Wednesday was Yohel Golsztayn, 29, of Hollywood. He is accused of filing an application for permanent residence falsely claiming that his mother had been born in Cuba. In answer to the judge’s questions, Golsztayn said he had passports from Colombia and Israel.
Pablo José Muro, 46, of Miami, was charged with filing an application for residence saying he was born in Cuba. But in federal court, Muro said he had a Venezuelan passport.
Other suspects included Francisco Ramirez, 45, of Sunrise, and Pablo Nunez, 42, of Miami Beach.
One of two people arrested in Jacksonville, Ferdinando Enrique Bello, 52, was charged with filing a citizenship application in which he falsely claimed he was born in Cuba.