The Filipino workers arrived at LAX believing they had found good jobs caring for elderly patients in picturesque Paso Robles, Calif.
But inside the converted ranch-style homes where they cared for aged residents, the immigrants worked 24-hour shifts with few, if any, days off. Their quarters were walk-in closets, attached garages and hallway floors. Their bosses confiscated their passports and warned them to stay away from public transportation to avoid being identified by immigration agents.
The scheme was executed by a man and his wife, who themselves came to the country from the Philippines in search of success, according to court records.
Maximino Morales, 46, and Melinda Morales, 48, pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy to harbor illegal immigrants. A judge sentenced them Monday to 18 months in federal prison for their role in helping the workers obtain fraudulent visas and for making them work in substandard conditions.
When the couple allowed the workers a day off, they let them ride away on bicycles, warning them not to take the bus or risk being caught in immigration checks, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Jeff Mitchell. The couple often credited their pay against a debt they purportedly owed for getting into the country.
"For some of them, the first few months they were there, they didn't get paid anything," Mitchell said.
The Moraleses' attorney, Steven Cron, portrayed them as a hardworking couple who strived to get ahead in the United States. Workers they recruited knew they were coming to the U.S. illegally, Cron said.
"This is not your typical situation where these people were enslaved, brought here against their will. They all knew what they were doing," Cron said. Dozens of friends, family members and even former employees wrote to the court on behalf of the couple, he added.
"There's allegations that the conditions were not pristine and I think that's probably accurate," Cron said. "But those people stayed on and continued to work voluntarily, and many of them were sending money back home to help their families back in the Philippines."
But prosecutors said the couple shortchanged workers hundreds of thousands of dollars in pay. Chief U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins ordered the couple to pay $600,000 in restitution.