Church leaders from Imperial Valley Ministries have been indicted on multiple counts for forcing homeless people to beg and stripping away their rights.
A dozen leaders from California-based ministry Imperial Valley Ministries have recently been indicted for forced labor of homeless people by a federal grand jury, CNN reports. According to a United States Attorney, the ministers "recruited" homeless individuals with the promise of food and shelter. Instead, they were forced to beg for money for nine hours a day, six days a week. In addition to this, the victims were coerced into giving up their benefits "for the financial benefit of the church leaders." Prosecutors confirmed in an official news release that on Tuesday, September 10, that the indictment had been unsealed. Now, the ministry will face charges of conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude, as well as benefits fraud.
The ministers were arrested in El Centro and San Diego and in Brownsville, Texas. Arraignment procedures began on Tuesday. Regarding the case, US Attorney Robert Brewer stated, "The indictment alleges an appalling abuse of power by church officials who preyed on vulnerable homeless people with promises of a warm bed and meals. These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom, and their dignity." Investigations have revealed that the victims were "sheltered" inside group homes with deadbolt locks only church leaders had keys to. Furthermore, the victims' IDs, such as driver's licenses, immigration papers, and passports were confiscated in order to ensure they did not run away or escape.
One of the unfortunate victims of the cruel act was a 17-year-old girl. She escaped when she was able to break out through a window. As per Attorney Brewer, she went directly to the police in order to report the ministers. Assistant US District Attorney Chris Tenorio explained at a press conference on Tuesday, "Dozens of victims have alleged the same thing — once they were inside the group homes, the IVM had become a venture designed to keep as many as people as possible for as long as possible." According to various accounts, it has been reported that the church leaders kept a very close watch on the victims. They were isolated, frequently threatened with punishment for violating house rules, and could only go anywhere under the attendance of the church leaders. Additionally, they were informed that their children would be taken away from them if they left.
Assistant Attorney Tenorio also shared that the victims were forced to turn over all their belongings. The victims' benefits, such as Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards that allow holders to purchase food, were also taken away from them. Reportedly, they were handed over to individuals who did not qualify to receive those benefits. Moreover, while they were promised food and shelter, they were denied access to basic and necessary medical attention, Scott Brunner, special agent in charge of the FBI's San Diego field office, affirmed. This includes a diabetic victim who was refused insulin and food in order to regulate their blood sugar levels.
Brunner explained that identifying labor trafficking victims such as these poor individuals is especially difficult and challenging because they are kept isolated and often work legal jobs behind the scenes, working, for instance, on farms and in homes, restaurants, and factories. Attorney Brewer concluded, "I would like this case to send a message to the victims. That message being: We want to help you. You have to report these types of crime to law enforcement, so that we can help you." Labor trafficking is not uncommon in the United States, however, victims rarely come forward due to the fear of facing repercussions themselves. Hopefully, this indictment will give other victims renewed trust in the system.