A total of 20 people were arrested in Miami-Dade and Broward counties after posing as Cuban citizens seeking immigration benefits, authorities said Wednesday.
The arrests were made Tuesday and Wednesday as part of "Operation Havana Gateway," a response to a rise in immigration fraud based on claims to Cuban citizenship, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in an email statement.
The suspects hail mainly from South and Central America and are said to have paid as much as $20,000 for falsified Cuban birth and citizenship records, according to authorities.
"There are document vendors that sell either legitimate Cuban birth certificates that are then completed with fictitious information, or fraudulent birth certificates," said Alysa Erichs, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations.
With those documents, the suspects used the paperwork to attempt to fast track their applications for U.S. residency, Erichs said. Because the investigation is ongoing, the vendors have not been identified. Operation Havana Gateway launched last August, and spans from South Florida to the Southwestern U-S, where interviews conducted at the borders raised red flags.
"When interviews are conducted by USCIS, they pick up on the fact that something's not right," Erichs said.
She explained that the suspects were often stumped on their knowledge of Cuba, their alleged hometowns or local dialects.
Those in custody face federal charges and indictments and were scheduled to make first appearances in Miami-Dade and Broward Courts Wednesday. They face jail time and deportation.
The illegal document vendors, if caught with five forged records, can face as much as five years in prison.
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