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Three men charged with scamming agricultural guest workers

Three men charged with scamming agricultural guest workers
A farmworker contracted under the agricultural guest worker program picks cauliflower last year on a farm near Greenfield, Calif. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Federal authorities charged three Southern California men with fraud and conspiracy Thursday, saying the trio illegally charged Mexican workers for agricultural guest-worker visas, then billed them for housing and other services that are supposed to be provided for free.

The U.S. Attorney's Central District Office in Los Angeles said the scheme, which involved charging as much as $3,000 for the visas, was centered around Jorge Vasquez, 58, of Fontana, a labor recruiter who owns H-2A Placement Services in Rancho Cucamonga, and Melquiades Jacinto Lara, 62, of Santa Paula, owner of J&D Harvesting, a contractor who provided laborers to farms in Ventura County.

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In addition, Ricardo Mendoza Oseguera, 39, of Santa Paula, was charged in connection with financial transactions workers made through his Discoteca Mi Pueblito music and convenience store in Santa Paula.

Law enforcement officials seized $1.4 million in cash from that store last June, according to a February grand jury indictment that led to their arrest.

The men could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The agricultural guest worker program, known as H-2A, requires contractors to provide the seasonal visas and housing free of charge, along with low-cost meals or cooking facilities during the months when laborers pick crops.

The trio conspired to recruit workers in Mexico, charging them as much as $3,000 to obtain the highly coveted visas. Once the workers arrived, they were charged expenses that should have been paid by the labor contractor, the indictment alleges.

Vasquez, the recruiter, lied to workers about how long their visas would be valid — telling them they could stay three years, even though H-2A visas are valid for less than a year, the indictment charges.

Workers who cashed vouchers at Mendoza's convenience store had undisclosed and illegal fees deducted, the indictment alleges.

Vasquez also allegedly promised to sell an H-2A visa to an undercover officer for the U.S. Labor Department, who posed as an undocumented construction worker from Las Vegas who sought the visa but did not intend to work in agriculture, the indictment charges. The visa program does not cover construction workers.

Vasquez and Jacinto face charges of conspiracy, three counts of mail fraud, one count of visa fraud, and one count of fraud in foreign labor contracting, in connection with statements they made on documents used to obtain visas for at least 75 workers who harvested lemons, avocados and oranges, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The two have recruited more than 350 farmworkers since 2012, according to the U.S. Attorney's office, which did not elaborate on how many of those visas might have been obtained fraudulently.

Jacinto and Mendoza also are charged with operating an unlicensed money-transmitting business that workers used to send money back home to their families.

California growers have been recruiting agricultural guest workers in record numbers amid a prolonged shortage of local labor. Last year, they recruited 14,252 workers, the most they have hired in the guest worker program's modern history, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of U.S. Department of Labor data.

California's recruitment of foreign laborers, virtually all of them from Mexico, grew by 3,121 workers, a 28% increase from the previous year and nearly three times the national growth rate, according to the data analysis.

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UPDATES:

5:20 p.m.: This article was updated with details about cash seized in connection with the charges.

This article was originally published at 3:50 p.m.

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