Miami-Dade County

Fired Miami social worker gets 1 1/2 years in prison for extorting families of refugee children

Leslie Rubero Padilla
Leslie Rubero Padilla Handout

As a newly hired employee for a Miami social services agency, Leslie Rubero Padilla’s job was to reunite unaccompanied refugee children with their parents or legal guardians in the United States.

She was supposed to charge the families only for transportation, such as airfare. But authorities say Rubero shook down more than a dozen of them by insisting they had to send her additional money or the reunification with their children would be delayed — or, worse, they would be deported back to their native country in Central America.

“This case is just so shocking because this defendant preyed on the most vulnerable people,” federal prosecutor Daniel Bernstein said at Rubero’s sentencing hearing on Friday. “Why is it so offensive? She calculated that these are people I can rip off because they are not going to report it.”

The prosecutor asked U.S. District Judge Darrin Gayles to send Rubero, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud in September, to prison for four years. Bernstein pointed out that she not only exploited the poor parents and guardians for a total of $11,100, but also noted: “She had legal custody of their children.”

Gayles, however, showed a bit of lenience, after Rubero cried repeatedly in Miami federal court and declared: “I am not a bad person, though I did a bad thing.”

The judge sentenced her to 1 1/2 years in prison — though Gayles admitted that he started the hearing inclined to give her more punishment, just not as much as the prosecutor wanted.

Gayles said he found Rubero’s victims “particularly vulnerable” because they were new immigrants with no legal status and she took advantage of them by saying that “they may not see their children for a while” unless they paid her. But the judge also considered that the Puerto Rican-born Rubero, 27, had no prior criminal history, was going to pay back her victims and would likely not commit a crime again.

Rubero, who must surrender to prison officials on Jan. 4, was hoping for home confinement instead of jail time. “These victims are going to be made whole once again,” her defense attorney, Nayib Hassan, said in court.

Rubero was hired as a social worker with His House Children’s Home in Miami in 2014 at an annual salary of $35,000. The agency worked under contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The office is responsible for providing housing and other care for so-called Unaccompanied Alien Children, who emigrate to the United States without any parents or other legal guardians. The office also is tasked with locating the families of these refugee children so they can be reunited. The influx of children, who have no legal status, grew particularly acute last year when thousands left El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras for the U.S. border.

Rubero, who worked as a case manager, was assigned these duties, including contacting the parents or guardians in the United States and requiring them to pay for transportation as well as an escort if a child was under 14.

“The parent or legal guardian is not required to make any other payments to the social services agencies that contract with the ORR [Office of Refugee Resettlement],” according to a statement signed by Rubero with her plea agreement.

But between November of last year and March of this year, Rubero squeezed the families of 18 refugee children for extra payments beyond transportation or escort costs, ranging from $200 to $1,500 each, according to investigators with Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General.

“The defendant told the parents or legal guardians that they needed to send this money to her or the UAC [Unaccompanied Alien Children] would be placed in a different process and that in this process it might take longer for the UAC to be reunited with the parent or guardian,” Rubero’s statement said.

According to court records, a Salvadoran mother living in Massachusetts was contacted in March by Rubero, who demanded an extra payment of $1,000 for the release of her two refugee daughters. The mother, identified as MCP in court papers, sent the money via MoneyGram in Rubero’s name. But the mother sensed she was being victimized and contacted another social worker in her home state.

“When [Rubero] learned that she was on the verge of being discovered, she threatened MCP and told her that she was going to say she was an unfit mother because she had once tried to kill herself,” Bernstein, the prosecutor, wrote in his sentencing filing. Rubero also told the mother that “if she kept talking about it, they could take my daughters back and I would have problems.”

In a translated letter filed with the federal court, the mother accused Rubero of exploiting her vulnerable situation.

“Leslie Rubero knew about my history and the trauma I had experienced in El Slavador,” the mother wrote to Judge Gayles in September. “She knew that my daughters were fleeing from violence and death threats in El Salvador. They met with a psychologist at the shelter and my daughters told the psychologist everything.

“Leslie had all of that information. She used that information to scare me into paying more money to make sure that my daughters were safe and they were not returned to El Salvador.”