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Paso Robles couple going to prison for smuggling Filipinos into U.S.

A Paso Robles husband and wife were sentenced in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to 18 months in prison for smuggling Filipinos into California and forcing them to work in nursing homes for little or no pay.

Forty-five-year-old Maximino Morales and his wife, 48-year-old Melinda Morales, pleaded guilty in May to felony charges of conspiracy to harbor illegal immigrants.

The U.S. Attorney's Office had recommended a sentence of 21 months in prison, three years of supervised release (similar to probation), and restitution to the immigrant victims' families of about $737,000, representing wages owed to the former employees.

The Moraleses owned and operated Four M's Inc., which included four residential elder care facilities in Paso Robles.

They recruited and hired Philippine nationals to work as live-in caregivers, conspiring to fraudulently obtain visas for them to travel to the United States and work in Paso Robles, according to prosecutors.

According to prosecutors, they paid the undocumented immigrants less than minimum wage and threatened to hurt them if necessary.

They told the workers "not to talk to neighbors, to lie about their immigration status, to avoid speaking to visiting family members of the elder residents, and to refrain from using public transportation because of purported checkpoints throughout the city, " Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Mitchell wrote in a sentencing brief filed with the court.

Mitchell wrote that the defendants confiscated employees' fraudulent passports when they arrived and threatened to call the police if the immigrant workers attempted to leave.

"The (defendants) basically imported slave labor to make a substantial profit, " Mitchell wrote.

He also wrote that the victims in the case feared the defendants because of repeated threats, including harm to their families in the Philippines. Many were afraid to testify, prosecutors said.

"After the defendant was arrested in this matter, one of the defendants' family members confronted the victim's family in the Philippines, " Mitchell wrote. "Shortly after the confrontation, there was a drive-by shooting on the family home of the victim."

The Associated Press in Los Angeles and Tribune staff writer Nick Wilson contributed to this report.

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