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Church leaders charged with forced labor of homeless people

Victims were allegedly stripped of their identification paperwork, held captive, and forced to panhandle

Image source: KSWB-TV video screenshot

Twelve leaders of a California-based church have been indicted by a federal grand jury, accused of holding homeless people against their will and forcing dozens of alleged victims into panhandling for the financial benefit of ministry leadership.

What are the details?

Imperial Valley Ministries runs roughly 30 nondenominational churches throughout the southwest United States and Mexico, and operates three group homes with the promise of restoring drug addicts. Instead, officials claim, IVM exploited the people who came to the church for help.

According to KSWB-TV, a dozen of IVM's affiliated leaders were arrested in El Centro, San Diego, and Brownsville, Texas, Tuesday, "charged with conspiracy, forced labor, document servitude and benefits fraud."

"The indictment alleges an appalling abuse of power by church officials who preyed on vulnerable homeless people with promises of a warm bed and meals," U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said during a news conference. "These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity."

CNN reported that "the indictment alleges church leaders kept victims inside group homes with deadbolt locks only they had keys to and confiscated IDs such as driver's licenses, immigration papers and passports to prevent victims from escaping."

However, at least one victim did get away. A 17-year-old girl broke a window to escape one of the group homes, and ran to the police to report what was happening at IVM.

"Dozens of victims have alleged the same thing," Assistant U.S. District Attorney Chris Tenorio said at the same news conference. "Once they were inside the group homes, the IVM had become a venture designed to keep as many people as possible for as long as possible."

All of the victims have been released from IVM facilities.

"This is the most significant labor trafficking prosecution in this district in many years," Brewer added. "These cases are few and far between because many victims live in captivity and fear, powerless to report the crimes against them. My office wants victims to know that we are here to help you."

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