LOS ANGELES – Federal authorities on Wednesday arrested three top administrators of a Philippines-based church on federal charges of participating in an immigration fraud scheme that brought church members to the United States to work as fundraisers, and then arranged sham marriages and other illegal mechanisms to keep high-performing workers in the country.
A federal criminal complaint alleges that representatives of the church the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, The Name Above Every Name (KOJC) obtained visas for church members to enter the U.S. by claiming, for example, they would be performing at musical events. But, once the church members arrived in the United States, they were required to surrender their passports and work long hours as “FTWs” (full-time workers, who were also called “miracle workers”), who solicited donations for a church non-profit called the Children’s Joy Foundation USA (CJF). While the workers raised funds by telling donors their money would benefit impoverished children in the Philippines, the complaint alleges that most or all of the money raised was used to finance KOJC operations and the church leader’s lavish lifestyle.
The criminal complaint charges three defendants who are described as the main administrators of KOJC in the United States. They are:
- Guia Cabactulan, 59, the top KOJC official in the United States who maintained direct communication with KOJC leadership in the Philippines;
- Marissa Duenas, 41, who allegedly handled fraudulent immigration documents for KOJC workers and secured the passports immediately after workers entered the U.S.; and
- Amanda Estopare, 48, who allegedly handled the financial aspects of the KOJC enterprise, including enforcing fundraising quotas for KOJC workers.
Cabactulan and Duenas were arrested this morning at a KOJC compound in Van Nuys, where they lived. They are expected to make their initial court appearances this afternoon in United States District Court in Santa Ana. Estopare was arrested in Virginia.
In conjunction with this morning’s arrests, federal agents executed search warrants at the KOJC compound in Van Nuys, the CJF office in Glendale, and three other locations in the Los Angeles area. Searches were also conducted at two locations linked to KOJC in Hawaii, and agents fanned out across the United States to interview witnesses as part of a larger investigation into the organization.
The criminal complaint that led to this morning’s arrests charges the three defendants with conspiracy to commit immigration fraud. A 42-page affidavit in support of the complaint outlines a years-long scheme to bring FTWs to the United States under false pretenses and to make arrangements for productive fundraisers – known as “Assets” – to remain in the country by forcing them to marry other KOJC members who were U.S. citizens, or to obtain student visas and enroll FTWs in schools with lenient attendance policies. Over the past 20 years, according to immigration records summarized in the affidavit, there were 82 marriages involving KOJC administrators and FTWs.
The affidavit alleges that the immigration fraud scheme provided KOJC with workers to participate in widespread efforts to solicit donations with false claims that donors’ money would be used for the benefit of poor children in the Philippines. KOJC allegedly established daily cash solicitation quotas for FTWs, and if these quotas were not met, workers suffered abuse, according to victims who have fled KOJC and provided information to the FBI.
“[B]ank records show that KOJC accounts received approximately $20 million in cash deposits from 2014 through mid-2019,…[and] most of these funds appear to derive from street-level solicitation,” according to the affidavit, which notes that “little to no money solicited appears to benefit impoverished or in-need children.”
The affidavit summarizes the experiences of a series of victims who fled KOJC and provided information to the FBI over the past several years. Some of the victims described being sent across the U.S. to solicit donations, working long hours to reach their daily quotas, receiving little to no pay for their efforts, and participating in sending large sums of cash back to the Philippines on commercial and private flights.
The charge of conspiracy to commit immigration fraud carries a statutory maximum penalty of five years in federal prison.
The FBI has established a toll-free phone number for potential victims or anyone with information about KOJC activities to provide information. The information line is 1-800-CALL FBI (1-800-225-5324), and it will be staffed by English- and Tagalog-speaking personnel. Individuals may also contact the FBI through its website at https://www.fbi.gov/tips.