Heartbroken immigrants from four continents – some in tears over losing their life savings – have been testifying in Sacramento federal court since April 17 against Helaman Hansen. Photo/Sacramento Bee

Sacramento Bee. By Stephen Magagnini. 

Hundreds of undocumented immigrants paid an Elk Grove man thousands of dollars each to arrange their adoptions by U.S. citizens on the promise that they would become citizens themselves. Instead, federal authorities say, those immigrants fell victim to possibly the largest scam of its kind.

Heartbroken immigrants from four continents – some in tears over losing their life savings – have been testifying in Sacramento federal court since April 17 against Helaman Hansen, a (Tongan) charismatic businessman who allegedly persuaded some 500 victims to pay more than $500,000 to join his phony adult adoption scheme, prosecutors said.

Hansen, 64, has been charged with 16 counts of fraud and two counts of encouraging illegal immigration for financial gain, according to U.S. District Judge Morrison England. Hansen and his agents, who operated in such far-flung locales as Tonga and Hawaii, allegedly charged undocumented immigrants between $150 and $10,000 each on the false promise that they’d become U.S. citizens after adoption.

The victims, some of them as old as 50, were also promised tax identification numbers, birth certificates, Social Security numbers and, ultimately, U.S. passports, prosecutors said.

No one adopted through Hansen’s program, which he called the “Americans Helping America Chamber of Commerce,” won citizenship, said assistant U.S. attorneys André M. Espinosa and Katherine T. Lydon. According to U.S. law, only undocumented immigrants under age 16 can win citizenship after being legally adopted by a U.S. citizen.

In the eyes of federal officials, Hansen is a ruthless con artist who misrepresented the U.S. immigration system “to deceive and hurt those who are trying only to make a better life for themselves and their families,” said Ryan L. Spradlin, a special agent in charge of the Homeland Security Investigations office in San Francisco. If convicted, Hansen could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison and fined as much as $250,000.

Hansen has pleaded not guilty and is out on $250,000 bail. One of his attorneys, Federal Defender Timothy Zindel, told the jury that his client suffers from bipolar “grandiosity” and thought he was “acting in good faith, not for financial gain and didn’t encourage anyone to stay in the U.S. illegally.”

“This is a person who is very inspired but is mentally ill,” Zindel said. “Psychologists call his ideas ‘grandiose.’ ”

In February, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla warned the immigration consulting industry that state officials will be watching closely for anyone trying to scam undocumented immigrants panicked by recent federal raids and President Donald Trump’s pledge to crack down on people in the U.S. illegally.

Federal authorities said Hansen’s alleged adoption for citizenship scam was the largest of its kind they know of, with potentially more victims. Several others are under investigation.

Hansen told The Bee that he will “shock the world” when he testifies in the weeks to come. He said his scheme was legal under California law but accused the federal government of failing to take into account states’ rights.

“In my mind, I had to do something for these people,” Hansen said. “Some of them are related to me on my mother’s side.”

Hansen worked throughout the South Pacific and Australia before he won the diversity lottery and was granted a green card. He became a U.S. citizen in 2006. One of Hansen’s devotees observing the trial, Filipino native Chelsea Tomaquin Hansen, 52, said Helaman Hansen adopted her in 2015 for $1,500. In most of the cases, prosecutors said, Hansen arranged other people to adopt his clients.

Reyes Medrano, an undocumented Mexican construction worker from Castro Valley, said he and his wife first learned of Hansen’s “migration program” from members of his church. They then came to Rancho Cordova to meet Hansen and his associate, Jeffrey Sevier, who allegedly oversaw the adoption process. Medrano said he and his wife were promised citizenship within a year after paying $5,000 apiece. Reyes said his wife was adopted by Sevier in July 2015 in Alameda County Superior Court.

Medrano, 48, testified that when it was his turn to be adopted, “the judge addressed the person who was going to adopt me and said it shouldn’t be for purposes of immigration.” But that person, identified as a member of Medrano’s church, told the judge “it was because my mother was his sister and had died so he wanted to adopt me so we can start a family relationship,” Medrano said.

Medrano testified he told Sevier: “ ‘I don’t think this is right,’ and I was going to investigate. He said if I did investigate I would probably be deported because (Americans Helping America) had all my documents.”

Merrily Carter, a former company employee, called Hansen’s operation “the twilight zone” and testified that Hansen told her he’d met with a retired U.S. Supreme Court justice who helped guide him through the legal process. Carter said she “saw people in the waiting room in tears” because they had paid thousands of dollars to become citizens through the company.

Several other witnesses and former employees testified that after clients began flooding the office with questions, Hansen held a mandatory meeting for them in December 2015.

According to court testimony, Hansen reassured them that “everything was under control,” and the adoption program would work eventually. Hansen wouldn’t name anyone who had obtained citizenship through adoption, claiming those records were confidential, witnesses said.

Another churchgoer from Castro Valley, Gabriela de Jesus Hernandez, said the $9,000 she and her husband paid to be adopted “was the money we had saved in order to buy a house in Mexico.” Hernandez testified that “I told him I felt like a lump of jello; nothing was firm.”

Other alleged victims who took the witness stand came from El Salvador, New Zealand, Tonga, India and Fiji. Sui Winn, a New Zealander living in San Jose, said Hansen talked about creating a Polynesian cultural center and a community outreach program to help immigrants. Zindel, his attorney, said Hansen was born on a boat traveling between Tonga and New Zealand. “It sounded very appealing,” Winn said. “He was very charismatic.”

The trial continues Wednesday in Department 14 of the federal court building at 501 I St. in Sacramento.