Couple pleads not guilty to harboring illegal immigrants

The Paso Robles couple accused of harboring illegal immigrants to work in their care-giving operations pleaded not guilty this week in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Max and Melinda Morales, owners of four Paso Robles elder care homes, allegedly used the promise of a better life to lure at least three people from the Philippines to work for them, then forced them to labor for little or no pay and threatened to harm their families if they fled.

They were arrested March 30 after the FBI filed a complaint. Two family members of a resident of one of their homes reported suspected abuse by the couple to the FBI in November.

A new charge of harboring illegal immigrants for financial gain has been added since they were arrested, according to court records. They are also charged with harboring illegal immigrants, which carries a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in federal prison for each person smuggled.

A prison term estimate wasn’t released for the new charge.

Their trial is set to begin at 8:30 a.m. June 8 before Federal Judge Valerie Baker Fairbank, according to court records.

A judge set bail at $75,000 for Max Morales, 44, and $50,000 for his 46-year-old wife, which they posted. Max Morales is also subject to electronic monitoring, authorities said. The couple’s passports have been seized, according to court records.

The names, ages and genders of the alleged victims were not disclosed, but authorities said they are all adults.

Depending on the outcome of the investigation, FBI agents said, the caregivers could obtain certain visas awarded to crime victims.