FORT MYERS, Fl — Elsa Aguirre was twice abducted by kidnappers in Mexico City, who emptied her checking accounts. It's a common crime known as "express kidnapping" in Mexico.
After one of those ordeals, the thugs left her seriously beaten, and threw her on the railroads.
She even was about to be kidnapped a third time. "Two guys dressed as women were waiting for me outside my hose", Elsa remembers. "Luckily, my neighbors saw everything and threatened them with sticks and stones, until the criminals ran away".
And yet, this was not what forced the woman and her husband, Humberto Rodriguez, to immigrate to the United States, but something far more devastating: Unemployment.
"I worked 22 years as a bank executive", she said. "But the bank was sold and every employee older than 40 was fired". Her husband Humberto —also a long-time bank employee— was laid-off too.
The couple moved to Fort Myers 7 years ago, and started working pretty much in everything: Humberto worked as construction laborer, and Elsa in a fast-food restaurant.
They were doing fine, though. "At the restaurant I made the same money I was making as a senior bank executive back in Mexico", Elsa said.
However, the anti-immigration hysteria that sweeps the United States as of late has scared them.
"We decided to emigrate again", Elsa says. "One feels like a criminal in this country".
Through acquaintances, they heard that a Naples-based organization, Jerusalem Haitian Community Center, was processing refugee applications for Canada on behalf of Latin American undocumented immigrants.
Elsa and Humberto decided to give it a try, and paid the $800 fee requested by Jerusalem Haitian for their joint application.
But days later, they heard that a scandal broke off due to allegations of supposed fraud against the Naples organization.
The Mexican couple lost their $800, an amount they may never recover. But there is a loss they regret even more: "Our broken dreams", Elsa said. "Our hope of better opportunities. We'll never get that back".
Today, the couple is joining a federal and state lawsuit that the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC) is filing against Jerusalem Haitian Community Center and its director, Jacques Sinjuste, for allegedly scamming hundreds of immigrants on the promise of sending them to Canada legally.
"It's true that Mexicans can enter Canada without a visa", said Victor Valdes, who chairs LULAC's local chapter in Naples. "But according to the Canadian government, only 8 percent of Mexican applicants received refugee status last year. That means the remaining 87 percent was deported".
LULAC —the oldest and largest Hispanic advocacy organization in the United States— has received more than 100 complaints on this issue, and knows about two other organizations that allegedly charge up to $1,500 to "take people to Canada", perhaps inspired on Sinjuste's example.
"I have seen cases that make me want to cry: People with children, with illusions, they sell everything they own and end up being ripped off", Valdes said. "I arrived to this country the same way, with illusions... This man (Sinjuste) has mocked these people. With his malevolent organization, he took away their dreams and their money".
Sinjuste denies any scam. "We just take donations, never charged anything. We have even filled up applications for free to people with no money", he said in an interview in Jerusalem Haitian offices weeks ago. "We want to help the community".
He insisted the refugee applications are for real. "We just fill up applications, the entire process is done by a Detroit organization named Freedom House, who works with us", he explained.
Pegg Roberts, Freedom House executive director, denied in a recent letter any involvement with Sinjuste and Jerusalem Haitian, and wants them to stop using their name.
Roberts assured that a formal protest has been filed with the Attorney General of Florida.
This only worsens the plight of the immigrant victims.
Despite the courage she showed by publicly denouncing the case, Elsa says she is afraid of being deported.
"But I'm more afraid of scam. If I'm deported, I would assume by responsibility, and will go back to my country", she said.
Meanwhile, Valdes is trying to get special visas for her, her husband and other victims of this case, advised by the Mexican Consulate in Miami.
"These people are the victims. If the U.S. government wants the case, they should get them documents so they can testify", he said.