Five people, including a former Armenian consul, have been arrested in alleged schemes to block the deportation of illegal immigrants convicted of murder and other serious crimes, federal immigration officials announced Tuesday.
The defendants allegedly obtained letters from the Armenian Consulate in Los Angeles and then sold them -- for as much as $35,000 each -- to at least two dozen convicted criminals facing deportation, officials said. The letters, which were sent to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the Armenian government could not verify that the immigrants were citizens and therefore could not let them back into the country.
Unable to deport the immigrants, U.S. officials were forced to release them. By law, the immigration agency cannot keep criminals in detention for more than six months beyond their prison sentences if deportation is unlikely.
The immigrants who received the "letters of refusal" had been convicted of murder, attempted murder, robbery and other crimes, officials said.
"It's a great scheme," said Jennifer Silliman, deputy special agent in charge of the immigration agency's Los Angeles office. "You have got these career criminals, many of whom are violent, circumventing the system and essentially buying themselves a place in the United States."
Grigor Hovhannissian, Armenia's consul general in Los Angeles, said he and others within the Armenian government were committed to cooperating with U.S. authorities in the ongoing investigation.
"It is in our vital interest to sort this out," he said. "It does tremendous harm to the prestige of our country."
Hovhannissian said his predecessor, Norair Ghalumian, had not been part of the government for several years but allegedly was handling consular duties on his own.
"Outside of his professional duties, he may have been offering services that were totally illegal," he said.
Ghalumian, 52, was consul from 1999 to 2003, according to U.S. officials. The other defendants included Hakop Hovanesyan, 54, a former employee of the consulate; Margarita Mkrtchyan, 41, a Beverly Hills attorney; Oganes Nardos, 36, a substance abuse counselor; and Elvis Madatyan, 47, who owns an auto body business and a bakery.
All five appeared in court Tuesday afternoon to face federal charges of obstructing immigration proceedings. Four were ordered released on bonds ranging from $50,000 to $200,000 and told to return to court Aug. 17 for a preliminary hearing. Nardos' detention hearing was continued until Aug. 7 because of questions about whether he entered the country fraudulently. If convicted, each could be sentenced to five years in federal prison.
"These defendants endangered the safety and security of United States residents," U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O'Brien said in a statement.
The defendants' family members, gathered at the courthouse in Los Angeles, expressed disbelief about the charges.
"I am shocked," said Ghalumian's wife, Katarine Simonian. "A lot of people know him as a very honest person."
The immigration agency began its investigation about two years ago and used undercover agents to contact the defendants and obtain the illicit letters. All five people were allegedly carrying out the same scheme but were not part of a larger criminal organization, officials said.
Immigration authorities executed search warrants at various locations, including Mkrtchyan's Glendale residence, Hovanesyan's travel agency and Nardos' residence, and left with refusal letters and official stationery from the consulate. Immigration officials have identified some of those who received the letters and said they could face federal criminal charges.
Although the letters in this case were allegedly obtained fraudulently, there are thousands of immigrants across the country with legitimate letters of refusal. They have served time for crimes and been ordered deported but are still here because the U.S. cannot get passports or visas for them. Among them are Armenians born in the former Soviet Union, Palestinians born in refugee camps and Africans from countries whose international borders have shifted.