A pastor and his wife from California have been convicted of using homeless individuals for forced labor, forcing them to panhandle for extended hours and stealing their government benefits. They have been sentenced to serve time in prison for their actions which federal prosecutors have described as a church-affiliated labor trafficking scheme.
Victor Gonzalez, the lead pastor of Imperial Valley Ministries, pleaded guilty to committing benefits fraud in a San Diego federal court and was sentenced to serve six months in prison and another six months under house arrest. His wife, Susan Gonzalez, was given a sentence of time already served.
Exploiting the Homeless Individuals in Church-Affiliated Labor Trafficking Scheme
According to the United States Attorney's Office in 2019, the Southern District of California U.S. Attorney's Office announced that Victor and Susan Gonzalez are among a dozen defendants indicted for exploiting homeless individuals for forced labor and stealing their welfare benefits.
The allegations were that the defendants were involved in gathering homeless individuals in San Diego and other cities and unwillingly force them to raise money for the church in El Centro. All the other defendants are also reported to have pleaded guilty to their role in gathering homeless people for forced labor-intensive work and panhandling for the financial benefit of the church leaders.
The U.S. Attorney's Office also confirmed that the church led 30 affiliate churches in the United States and Mexico. The church's mission statement stated that it aimed to help "to restore drug addicts and their families."
El Centro Church Accused of Forced Panhandling and Confining Group Home Participants
According to Christian Post, The Imperial Valley Ministries (IVM) church, based in El Centro, California, ran and managed group homes for men and women in El Centro, Calexico, and Chula Vista. Prosecutors claim they recruited individuals from outside El Centro, including from as far away as Texas.
The leaders of IVM are accused of forcing the participants of the group homes to panhandle and of holding them against their will within the group homes. The indictment further claims that the defendants took away the identification documents of the participants, making it difficult for them to leave their homes.
The program participants were also forced to comply with the church's rules, which included not being allowed to contact their family members for about 30 days from the time they joined the program.
According to reports, the defendants also made use of and disbursed benefits that participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program received. Gonzalez's lawyer, Robert Rexrode, stated that the IVM program was comparable to other "tough drug treatment programs," where the regulations are stringent and it is frequently forbidden for participants to communicate with others while they are detained.
He also said that IVM participants' fundraising was not involuntary. Gonzalez completed the ministry program and wanted participants to follow the same rules he did. Reports also state that Gonzalez lived for free in an El Centro home and had access to a weekly salary and "other financial benefits such as occasional $ 1,000' blessings' from IVM."
Another source, the Times of San Diego, says that according to a sentencing memorandum from Susan Gonzalez's defense attorney, it was stated that she and others in IVM (Imperial Valley Ministries) had asked for the participants to surrender their EBT cards and the pooled SNAP benefits were used in violation of the law, but this was the same practice that was followed when she was in the IVM, so she did not question it.
Her attorney also mentioned that Susan Gonzalez sold items like candy on the streets for the church and gave her earnings to the IVM. The Gonzalezes pleaded guilty to the conspiracy to commit benefits fraud last year, while other charges such as forced labor, document servitude, and other alleged crimes xwere dismissed. All the other defendants in the case also pleaded guilty, and most received sentences of time served.