A Chinese national who prosecutors say called himself "Supreme Commander" of a phony Army reserve unit will be arraigned today in California on charges of swindling thousands of dollars from more than 100 aspiring U.S. citizens he recruited to his group.
The scam is highly unusual for its use of fraudulent military operations to target and profit from immigrants seeking a path to citizenship, according to immigration experts.
Yupeng "David" Deng rented an office space in Temple City, Calif., decorated it to resemble an official military recruiting center and promised dozens of Chinese nationals that joining the so-called U.S. Army/Military Special Forces Reserve Unit would lead to citizenship, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office said in a statement.
Deng, 51, allegedly charged recruits $300 to $450 initiation fees and collected $120 in membership dues each year after forming the group in October 2008.
Officials allege that recruits received bogus U.S. Army uniforms, enlistment documents and military ID cards. The men even appeared together in public dressed in uniform, marching in a local parade and touring the USS Midway museum in San Diego, prosecutors say.
"Deng conducted quasi-training exercises, set up his own version of drills, using non-lethal weaponry, and he did some English language training, too," said FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller.
A spokeswoman for the District Attorney's office declined to discuss the total amount of money Deng allegedly stole from the men or the apparent authenticity of the documentation he allegedly produced. She also declined to comment on the alleged victims' immigration status or whether their testimony is part of the investigation.
But immigrant advocates say the case likely involves vulnerable undocumented immigrants desperately looking for ways remain legally in the United States.
"For a lot of people, especially if they've come from countries where you do pay to get things from the government, they think these sort of arrangements are normal," said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. "The victims in this case likely believed they really were in the military and on the way to becoming citizens because of a lack of cultural understanding."
Hincapie said she hopes prosecutors will extend temporary legal status to the victims in exchange for their testimony.
"It's hard to prosecute cases like this because people are afraid to come forward and speak out against a person seen as revered in the community and risk being deported," she said. "I seriously hope the government is going to use the victims as material witnesses in this case as this guy could get off without their testimony."
Deng, who was arrested Tuesday by FBI and Defense Department investigators, faces up to eight years in prison, if convicted, for 13 counts of theft by false pretenses, manufacturing deceptive government documents and counterfeit of an official government seal.
Investigators discovered Deng's alleged scam after several fraudulent IDs surfaced in separate traffic stops and at some military facilities where the alleged victims presented them for renewal, an FBI spokeswoman said.
Deng is also charged with possessing child pornography after a search of his home computer turned up the illicit material. He will be arraigned in that case on April 18.