The influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America caused widespread chaos as the government worked with local agencies to reunite them with parents or legal guardians in the United States.
Leslie Rubero Padilla, a newly hired employee of a Miami social services agency, was tasked with charging the families of the minors for transportation costs like airfare, but authorities said she instead shook down more than a dozen of them for additional money.
According to the Miami Herald, Rubero extorted more than $11,000 from families by insisting they had to send her additional money or the reunification of the children would be delayed, or they would even be deported back to their native country.
“This case is just so shocking because this defendant preyed on the most vulnerable people,” said federal prosecutor Daniel Bernstein on Friday when Rubero was sentenced to 18 months for extortion. “Why is it so offensive? She calculated that these are people I can rip off because they are not going to report it.”
Rubero pleaded guilty to wire fraud.
The Puerto Rican-born 27-year-old was hired as a social worker with His House Children’s Home in Miami in 2014. The agency worked with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
She was hired with an annual salary of $35,000 and was tasked with contacting the parents or U.S. guardians asking them to pay for transportation as well as an escort if the child was under 14, the Herald reported.
However, Rubero shook down the families of 18 unaccompanied minors for extra payments beyond transportation or escort costs, ranging from $200 to $1,500 between November 2014 and March 2015.
Court records show that Rubero contacted a Salvadoran mother living in Massachusetts in March, demanding an extra $1,000 for the release of her two daughters. The woman, identified only as MCP, sent the money via MoneyGram to Rubero, but contacted another social worker in home state because she felt she was being victimized.
In a letter filed with federal court, the mother accused Rubero of exploitation during vulnerable time.
“Leslie Rubero knew about my history and the trauma I had experienced in El Slavador,” she wrote to U.S. District Court Barrin Gayles in September, the Herald reported. “She knew that my daughters were fleeing from violence and death threats in El Salvador.”
She continued: “Leslie had all of that information. She used that information to scare me into paying more money to make sure that my daughters were safe and they were not returned to El Salvador.”
In the sentencing hearing on Friday, Gayles admitted that he started the case inclined to give Rubero more than 18 months in prison for taking advantage the “particularly vulnerable” victims who were new immigrants with no legal status in the U.S.
However, he said, he had to consider that Rubero had no prior criminal history, was going to pay back her victims and would likely not commit a crime again.
Rubero needs to surrender to prison officials on Jan. 4.