SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Federal authorities charged a Sacramento man Thursday with running what they called an unusually creative scam that promised U.S. citizenships to hundreds of immigrants across at least seven states in return for fees as high as $10,000.
Helaman Hansen operated a Sacramento nonprofit called the Americans Helping America Chamber of Commerce.
He was indicted for offering adult adoptions as a pathway to citizenship for people who were in the country illegally.
His agency promoted the adoptions, which are legal and are routinely used in estate planning, to make parent-child relationships official and to aid in the care of a disabled adult.
But they don't affect adults' immigration status, said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, although they can be helpful for those under age 16.
"Taking advantage of the hopes and dreams of undocumented immigrants, who are poorly positioned to seek the protection of law enforcement, to extract fees based on false promises, is a particularly predatory and manipulative type of fraud," Wagner said.
He said the scheme that began in 2012 had "a certain audacity" that separated it from routine immigration fraud.
"Fraud schemes come in a lot of different flavors, and this one is pretty creative, I think. Far-fetched I guess would be another word for it. I haven't seen one quite like this before involving adult adoptions as a path to citizenship as a fraud scheme," he said.
No attorney is listed for Hansen, who is set for a court hearing Friday. But Hansen previously told Sacramento's KCRA-TV that the federal investigation was likely sparked by a former employee who inappropriately handled adoptions. He argued that his program is as much about changing lives as it is in arranging citizenships.
Authorities said the operation took in at least $500,000 from at least 500 immigrants in California, Hawaii, New York, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.
Hansen, his employees and recruiters initially targeted Pacific Islanders and claimed to have offices in Fiji, according to the indictment. But Wagner said they expanded to Latinos and immigrants from China and Southeast Asia.
Hansen, 63, of the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove, was arrested Thursday on conspiracy and a dozen fraud charges that carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
Operators initially promised citizenship within a year after the adoption, the indictment says, but later hedged that it could take two years. Recruiting agents were paid about $1,500 for each victim they brought in.
Aside from the adoptions, immigrants were required to create a "new identity profile" complete with driver's license, library card, bank account, and birth certificate.
The agency started selling what it called "memberships" in the program for $150, but raised the rate to as high as $10,000 as more victims responded, the indictment says. If necessary, operators would use false information on adoption petitions so it would be considered in court, the indictment says.
Wagner said the yearlong investigation was complicated because victims were often reluctant to cooperate for fear they would be deported. He emphasized that is not the goal of the ongoing investigation.