His name was “Val” and he was a Miami immigration officer, of some sort. He flashed a badge, spoke with authority and seemed to know people at the local departments of motor vehicles offices.
His offer was enticing: he’d arrange paperwork so undocumented immigrants could get real Florida driver licenses. Word spread fast around South Florida.
Dozens of people who had been living and working in the shadows for years took him up on the offer, shelling out $2,000 apiece. One was a longtime hotel maintenance man who played the saxophone and volunteered at his church. Another owned a restaurant with his wife. One ran a plastery company in Homestead and coached his daughter’s youth soccer team.
But federal investigators, working with a confidential informant, eventually got wise to the scheme. Over the past few months, agents have quietly arrested over 20 people who paid for his phony documents, including two men who were convicted Tuesday at Miami federal court.
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And “Val,” prosecutors say, was no real immigration officer but a conman named Valois Nuñez Artiles. He has now been charged with fraud and is facing trial this month in Miami federal court. Against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s aggressive stance on illegal immigration, the case underscores the risky lengths taken by undocumented immigrants who want some semblance of normality.
“These poor people are desperate. They’re good people. They’re hard-working people,” said criminal defense attorney Bob Pardo, who represents the soccer coach. “They pay their taxes. They’re as American as you and me.”
Nuñez, 47, is scheduled for trial in Miami federal court on Feb. 19. His defense lawyer, Christopher DeCoste, declined to comment. “We are currently investigating the government’s evidence and allegations,” he said.
The case was spearheaded by U.S. Homeland Security Investigations. An agency spokesman declined to comment because the investigation is considered ongoing.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, in a statement Tuesday, said it works closely with law enforcement and “routinely provides training to credentialing clerks” to spot fraudulent documents.
It was the DMV that alerted ICE in September about suspicious documents being presented by people wanting to get licenses in South Florida.
The form in question is called an “order of supervision.” ICE gives the documents to people who are slated for deportation, but have an approved reason to not be sent back. To qualify for the order, someone must hail from a country that doesn’t have diplomatic relations with the United States, be a single parent of a child who is a U.S. citizen or have a “significant health condition.”
Anyone with the order can apply for a Florida driver’s license and a card authorizing them to work legally in the United States.
Nuñez, a U.S. citizen originally born in Cuba, runs AAA Messaging Service, a courier company. He is married and now lives in Gainesville, where one of his daughters attends college and his wife works at the University of Florida.
He is free on bond while awaiting trial.
Nuñez’s first major brush with the law came in 2004, when he accepted probation in Miami-Dade on two charges of grand theft, although the case was not considered a conviction.
But federal agents say Nuñez was the “mastermind and ringleader” of the document scam that lasted at least one-and-a-half years. He used several aliases and “pretended he was an immigration officer, sometimes carried a law enforcement badge and was seen with what looked like a government identification card,” according to court documents.
Investigators say Nuñez’s scam was thorough. He asked undocumented immigrants to provide birth certificates and passports, photos and their personal details, even having them put their fingerprints on the forms. He also instructed them to go to specific DMV branches. Sometimes Nuñez accompanied them to the DMV to turn in the forms, federal prosecutor Yisel Valdes wrote in one court motion.
Immigrants who used Nuñez for papers often referred others to him, and helped him broker the deals.
One of them was a man named Byron Espana Lopez, who referred a man to Nuñez for a fake form, according to a criminal complaint. The man, however, was an ICE confidential informant who soon turned to another middle man, Kebyn Hernandez, who himself had twice paid Nuñez for the fake form.
In December, Hernandez delivered the fake form to the informant in exchange for $2,000 cash, Agent Erasmo Suarez wrote in his criminal complaint.
Nuñez and more than 20 others were rounded up in late December.
Among those arrested was Terry Dember, 54, of the island of St. Vincent, who came to the United States over three decades ago on a tourist visa. He overstayed the visa but worked as a maintenance man at a Downtown Miami luxury hotel for years.
“He also consistently held a stable job and always paid his taxes,” his lawyers, Sabrina Puglisi and Dianne Carames, said in a statement. “Most, if not all of the men arrested in this scheme, were taken advantage of by the man they knew as ‘Val’… they were told that he worked with immigration and could help them get their paperwork.”
Dember pleaded guilty on Tuesday, for credit for time already served in federal detention. He’ll likely be deported.
Another man, Jhony Antonio Contreras Maradiaga, a day laborer from Honduras, chose to fight the allegations.
At trial this week, Contreras’ defense team cast him as an unsophisticated and unknowing victim, somebody duped by a conman who posed as an attorney and even went down to the DMV with him.
“He is a very simple, humble person,” said his attorney, Dennis Gonzalez. “He has two kids who are American citizens. He’s lived here for a long time. No criminal history. He doesn’t understand English. He thought that the order of supervision was legitimate and that’s why he went to the DMV.”
But jurors deliberated less than two hours in convicting him of a single count of knowingly using a false document to show an authorized stay in the United States.