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California and the West

5 Plead Guilty to Illegally Bringing Nurses Into U.S.


WASHINGTON — Five people, including three Southern Californians, pleaded guilty Wednesday to illegally bringing hundreds of registered nurses from the Philippines into this country to work in convalescent homes and other medical facilities in 35 states.

The nurses paid up to $7,000 each to recruiters who helped them get fraudulent visas, then toiled for substandard wages--as little as $5 an hour--and often camped in dirty, crowded apartments upon arriving in the United States, officials said.

Officials said the ring, centered in Lubbock, Texas, signals an increasing sophistication by those flouting U.S. immigration laws.

"This is, without a doubt, one of the largest--if not the largest--visa fraud schemes ever seen in this country," said Lynn Ligon, of the Dallas district of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Operations that smuggle people into the country through fraudulent means increase "more and more all the time as people from all over the world try to get to the United States any way they can."

The investigation was the second major sting of an alleged smuggling operation in as many months. In December, nine people were indicted on charges of bringing workers from central Mexico to a Georgia T-shirt factory.

In the new case, Lubbock resident Billy Denver Jewell, 54, who owns 22 nursing homes, was paid more than $500,000 for obtaining about 570 illegal visas, officials said. He faces up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for conspiring to launder money, wire fraud and aiding and abetting.

Others snared in the federal bust and pleading guilty Wednesday include Holly Arthur "Estie" Estreller, 46, who runs the Nurses Exchange of America in Los Angeles, and Sidney and Veronica Hewitt of San Diego's S & V Health Care. Together, the three recruited at least 50 illegal nurses, according to court records. Estreller and Sidney Hewitt, 45, each could get up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. Veronica Hewitt, 46, could get up to six months in prison.

Haesook "Clara" Kim, 48, of Wayne, N.J., also pleaded guilty to charges related to the ring and could get up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Sentencing has not yet been scheduled for the five.

Still at large is Nelson Alomajim Sin, 51, of Sugar Land, Texas, who faces a 274-count indictment including conspiracy, money-laundering and fraud.

Joe Heflin, Sidney Hewitt's lawyer, said his client did not know Jewell was filing false documents.

"He didn't pay careful attention. Any time you're dealing with immigration documents, everything has to be just perfect," Heflin said. "He's out of business now. He's filed a bankruptcy. He's looking for work."

Estreller, Jewell and their attorneys could not be reached Wednesday.

Investigators said the influx of illegal immigrants may have cost other nurses $13 million in lost salary opportunities per year, and nursing industry leaders said the scheme exploited both the foreigners and nurses who are U.S. citizens or legal residents.

"This is outrageous. It's totally unconscionable to do this," said Lolita B. Compas, president-elect of the Philippine Nurses Assn. of America. "The nurses are afraid to speak up--they know they're going to be deported. They're so naive. They just want to get a job and do the work. They probably don't even know that the papers are fraudulent."

Cheryl Peterson, senior policy fellow of the American Nurses Assn., said the national average salary for registered nurses has been stagnant for several years at $38,000 a year. While some areas--including California--face labor shortages in the nursing field, the country as a whole has enough nurses and does not need to import them in large numbers.

"If you've got nurses who are willing to work at a [low] wage . . . you're going to find that the wages of all registered nurses is going to go down," she said. "These nurses that were brought into this country were treated poorly, in conditions that we would not consider to be acceptable for any health care provider."

The scheme took advantage of a 1989 law requiring medical facilities to prove they cannot find domestic nurses before hiring foreigners, and promise to hire the foreign workers prevailing wages once they arrive.

Court records show that Jewell lied to the Department of Labor and the INS when submitting hundreds of petitions saying Filipino and South Korean nurses would work in his nursing homes. Instead, the nurses were intercepted in California by the Hewitts or Estreller--or in New Jersey by Kim--and sent to facilities throughout the country.

Rather than making the $13 or $15 an hour they were promised, the nurses earned much less--at times only $5 an hour, said U.S. Atty. Paul Coggins. Many worked in nursing assistant positions, but some obtained licenses and worked as registered nurses. Nursing license boards would have no reason to question visas, officials said.

Because the nurses were well trained, there is no indication that any patient care was compromised, officials said.

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