Illegal immigrants in South Florida who've forked over thousands for the right to stay here legally claim they've been ripped off by a reverend.
The Reverend Alberto Alers brags about the good works done by his Seamens Harvest Ministries in Plantation.
The lobby of the store-front operation has signs announcing, "We Are Not Your Lawyers", and "Work Permits Are Not For Sale", seemingly put there to thwart accusations like those offered by a group of women accusing Seamens Harvest of luring illegal immigrants in, taking their money, but not delivering on promises.
"He gets from the illegal people a lot of money," says Tracy Grady, one of the women accusing Alers of the religious scam. "$6,870 just to come in."
Grady is a legal resident, but in trying to help her friends from Argentina and Hungary get their legal residency, she took them to see Reverend Alers.
"I wanted to do something good and it's turning out as tragedy, you know what I mean?" Grady said.
She says the illegal immigrants are easy targets for rip-offs because they're too scared of deportation to report the crimes to authorities.
"She say that she's terrified and she's very, very sad she couldn't get her work permit out of that," Grady says, translating her Hungarian friend's words. The Hungarian woman did not want to be identified, but said she spent more than $12,000 at Seamens Harvest, with nothing to show for it.
"That's not true. We don't take advantage of anyone," Rev. Alers said. "We put in to either re-open a case or to stop a deportation."
When asked if he charges money for that service, Alers said, "No, we only help our members, to be a member of the Seamens Harvest Ministry is $3,860."
Another alleged victim, a woman from Argentina who also asked to be anonymous, claims she spent thousands of dollars, saying she felt intimidated because Alers told her he works for the federal Citizenship and Immigration Services Department.
"Every time I talked to him I felt as if I was very scared of being deported just because of where he said he worked," the woman said through an interpreter.
When asked if he ever tells anyone that he works or volunteers for the C.I.S., Alers replied, "No, of course not. Of course not."
The cashed money orders alleged victims produced are just the processing expenses from C.I.S. that the ministry passes along, he said.
"He says, when you apply, you don't need to go to courts, you don't need to go nowhere, the ministry represent you totally, so you don't have to do anything," Grady said.
Alers said the people lobbing accusations at his organization are just disgruntled things didn't work out in their favor.
But the woman from Argentina, who's seeing her dream of staying in the United States slip away, is much more than disgruntled.
"There's a lot of victims," she said with tears rolling down her face. "This guy's out there and he's taking advantage of a lot of people."