A California church leader was arrested by the FBI on immigration fraud charges because of a decadeslong scheme to trick followers into becoming fundraisers and arrange sham marriages to keep them in the U.S., according to reports.
The local leader of the Philippines-based Kingdom of Jesus Christ church in Los Angeles was arrested in the early morning bust along with a worker who confiscated passports of the victims of the scheme, the U.S. attorney's office said.
Fundraisers who managed to escape from the church told the FBI that they had been sent across the U.S. to solicit donations for the church's charity, The Children's Joy Foundation, and were beaten if they didn't make daily quotas, according to affidavit filed in support of the charges.
Some described having to live in cars at truck stops.
An FBI agent investigating the case documented 82 sham marriages over a 20-year period and tracked $20 million raised between 2014 and the middle of last year that was sent back to the church in the Philippines.
"Most of these funds appear to derive from street-level solicitation," according to the affidavit by FBI Special Agent Anne Wetzel. "Little to no money solicited appears to benefit impoverished or in-need children."
Calls from The Associated Press to the church for comment were not immediately answered.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.