DETROIT, MICH. - She claimed she was a good person who was trying to keep immigrant families together.
The government said she was a liar who scammed immigrants out of money and spent it on a big house and multiple cosmetic surgeries, including a tummy tuck, nose job and liposuction.
In the end, the woman admitted to some wrongdoing — and it cost her years of freedom.
On Friday, in a federal courtroom in Detroit, a Canadian woman was sentenced to three years in prison for smuggling illegal immigrants into the U.S. for money for years — a crime that authorities say helped her and her husband amass a fortune of more than $1 million.
The defendant is Iram Jafri, 38, an immigration consultant from Windsor whom prosecutors say ran a years-long fraud scheme that involved helping more than 100 undocumented immigrants sneak into Detroit from Windsor. She did this, authorities say, by obtaining fake visas for immigrants and driving them over the border into the U.S. Her husband, Khoder Aboutaam, also was charged, though his case is still pending.
Jafri, who pleaded guilty in February to alien smuggling for purpose of financial gain, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Laurie Michelson, who also ordered her to pay a $200,000 fine. Prosecutors said her crime hurt many: "unsophisticated German Mennonites" who "relied entirely" on her to help them get legal status; American employers who entrusted her to act on their behalf in procuring visas for their immigrant employers, and American workers who lost out on jobs that could have been theirs.
"Without question, the defendant's criminal activity was extensive. The scheme entailed multiple steps and was of a long-term nature," prosecutors wrote in court documents, stressing the crimes caused "several distinct harms."
"First, by fraudulently securing visas for illegal (immigrants) Jafri took jobs from lawful job seekers in the U.S. Second, the illegal immigrants that Jafri 'helped' are now barred from any attempt to gain lawful status in the U.S. ... Third, when the immigration system is compromised by fraudulent conduct, the government's ability to provide fair and timely immigration benefits to those who play by the rules is harmed," prosecutors wrote in a June 20 filing.
According to court documents, the scheme worked like this: Jafri would fraudulently obtain visas for illegal immigrants who were already living and working in the U.S., with the ultimate goal of obtaining permanent residency for them. The immigrants would travel to Windsor, and Jafri would drive them back into the U.S. — for a fee ranging between $1,000 and $1,500 — pretending they were coming here for the first time to start new jobs as temporary, seasonal workers, when she knew they had already been in the U.S. and working.
Jafri pulled this off, prosecutors said, by lying to multiple government agencies, including the Department of Labor, and submitting hundreds of fake documents to make it look like she was taking legitimate steps to find immigrants work. But the whole time, prosecutors said, she was lying to everyone and lining her pockets along the way.
"The defendant's criminal conduct was motivated entirely by greed," prosecutors wrote, noting the couple had more than $900,000 in bank accounts. "The defendant's fraudulent proceeds have funded multiple cosmetic surgeries and the construction of a luxury home in Canada."
Jafri's attorney was not available for comment.
In court documents, friends and family have described her as a loving mother and wife and a generous community volunteer who worked tirelessly helping children, including once donating $1,500 to a child with cancer that she didn't know. She has an associate's degree in sociology, a "certificate of completion in eyelash extensions," and at one time considered closing her business to embark on an eyelash and makeup business.
Her attorney described her as a good person who had good intentions, but made a mistake.
"In Iram’s eyes, she was ... genuinely helping her clients, keeping families together, and working to keep people at work in jobs and in homes that they loved. On some level, she rationalized her actions as an 'ends justify the means' situation," defense attorney Loren Dickstein wrote in court documents. "She was wrong and she accepts full responsibility for her actions."
In a letter to the judge, Jafri, who has three children, ages 6, 10 and 12, apologized to the U.S.
"I have no words to express how sorry I am. I made mistakes and I am deeply remorseful for my actions," states the letter, which was filed June 15 in U.S. District Court. " have not only disappointed the United States of America, but also my family. I know my children are suffering for my mistakes."
The letter continues:
"I made foolish choices which I am most regretful for. I failed to use my ethics and (there is) no excuse for my (behavior) I have weaknesses, flaws and a lot of imperfections ... Whatever I did, I did for an income, but also from my heart to help other people and reunite families together, which I didn't realize at that time the size of the task was so serious. At least, in part, I though I was serving to help people and reuniting families together. I now realize I was helping people the wrong way. I regret this deeply ... Knowing this now has (definitely) opened my eyes and given me a mental shift and much bigger respect for the law."
Prosecutors scoffed at the woman's altruistic claims.
"The defendant’s assertion that she committed the crimes from her 'heart to help other people and reunite families' is complete hogwash," prosecutors wrote in a filing.
The government, meanwhile, said it believes this case will help deter others from running immigration schemes.
“The United States has a strong tradition of welcoming lawful immigrants. However, illegal immigration presents a threat to our economy and our national security. We are pleased that Ms. Jafri’s illegal operation has been put out of commission,” Acting U.S. Attorney Daniel Lemisch said in a news release.
Added Steve Francis, special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement: "We are resolute in our efforts to hold accountable the perpetrators who attempt to circumvent United States law by participating in alien smuggling. This conviction underscores the necessity of the public’s awareness of these schemes and importance of holding the defendant accountable.”
Under the terms of Jafri's plea agreement, she faced up to 48 months in prison, though the crime itself carried a mandatory minimum of 36 months.
Prosecutors asked the judge to lock her up for the maximum, 48 months.
Jafri pleaded for leniency and asked for 36 months, arguing that anything more would have a "needless and pointless harmful effect" on her and her family.
The judge gave her what she asked for: 36 months.
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