By Kate Ryan
NEW YORK - Southern California ministry leaders accused of holding homeless people captive and forcing them to beg on the street could spend up to two decades in prison if convicted of forced labor and other charges.
Several of the dozen accused leaders faced arraignment in federal court on Wednesday on criminal charges that also included conspiracy and benefits fraud.
Prosecutors said the ministry workers promised free food and shelter to dozens of mostly homeless people, then forced them to turn over their welfare benefits and panhandle several hours a day.
They worked for Imperial Valley Ministries of El Centro, California, operating under the guise of rehabilitating drug addicts at faith-based group homes in the state.
"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," said Robert Brewer, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, in a statement.
"This is the most significant labor trafficking prosecution in this district in many years," he said.
About 25 million people work in forced labor globally, according to the International Labour Organization.
These victims were recruited from southern California and surrounding states, dating back to 2013.
They were forced to turn over their passports, licenses and other documents and were cut off from their families, the indictment said.
Some reported being held against their will and said church leaders threatened to take their children.
Windows in the ministry's group homes were nailed shut and doors locked with multiple dead bolts, the indictment said.
Imperial Valley Ministries declined to comment, although a spokesman said a statement would be posted on its website later this week.
It runs a non-denominational church in El Centro, about 12 miles north of the Mexican border, and about 30 affiliate churches elsewhere in the United States and Mexico.
The accused leaders if convicted face the possibility of up to 20 years in prison.