CHELSEA -- Twenty-seven Brazilian nationals were arrested in a supermarket parking lot yesterday in connection with three identity-fraud rings that offered workers' permits and green cards to illegal immigrants for thousands of dollars, federal authorities said.
Seven of those arrested are facing criminal charges, along with an eighth person, who is a fugitive, according to the US attorney's office. All 27 detainees are in this country illegally and eventually will face deportation to Brazil, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said.
The arrests were part of a national crackdown on false or stolen IDs, ICE officials said. Though the arrests were made in Chelsea, authorities said the rings were not based there. They operated out of Everett, Framingham, Woburn, Malden, and other cities and towns.
"It's definitely organized groups of people that are doing this," said Bruce Foucart, special agent in charge of the ICE investigations office in Boston. "It is a systemic problem around the country."
Authorities would not say why the groups had gathered in the Market Basket parking lot because the information was part of the investigation.
Officials arrested Fabio Santonione Almeida, Marcos Rodrigues Da Silva, Wirlei Goncalves Dias, his sister, Creone Angelina Dias, Welton Ribeiro Damaceno, Fabricio Dutra Lopes, and Walace Dias Goncalves, who allegedly bought documents or helped others to procure them, according to the US attorney's office and ICE. Rokwdson Da Silveira Gato also faces charges, but was not arrested yesterday, according to the officials.
All are charged with conspiracy to possess unlawful identifications, punishable by up to five years in prison, three years of probation and $250,000 in fines, said the US attorney's office, which is handling the prosecution.
The arrests stemmed from an undercover investigation launched just over a year ago. According to the affidavits, an ICE agent posing as a Department of Homeland Security official offered to sell bonafide papers to illegal immigrants. Work-authorization cards cost $4,000, while green cards, which grant legal, long-term residency, cost an additional $9,000, according to the affidavits.
The immigrants were told the documents were genuine, but that it was illegal to buy them.
The total amount paid for the illegal documents was unavailable yesterday but the affidavits said authorities collected more than $100,000 from Almeida alone.
US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan declined to comment through a spokeswoman but issued a statement.
"It is understandable that many from around the globe would want to come to live, work, and raise families here in the greatest democracy in the world," he said in the statement. "However, this must be done in compliance with U.S. immigration laws, not in violation of them," the statement said.
The arrests sent a shudder through Chelsea yesterday, home to a large immigrant population and sympathetic city officials. Municipal officials recently declared Chelsea a sanctuary city, a largely symbolic measure that welcomes immigrants regardless of their legal status, though they are still subject to federal laws.
About 40 people gathered at the police station yesterday, where elected officials and immigrant advocates tried to reassure the public that the federal investigation had targeted criminal activity.
"The one operation that the city of Chelsea would not be supportive of . . . is a random rounding up of undocumented residents for no reason other than the fact that they are undocumented residents," said Jay Ash, Chelsea's city manager.
Gladys Vega, executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative, a nonprofit organization, said she received many phone calls from immigrants who feared that ICE had conducted a raid at the supermarket. She assured them they had not.
"Any individual that was walking by [the store] would have seen that there was a raid," she said. "They wouldn't know that they were taking a group of criminals that were showing fake documents. What they saw was that immigration was at Market Basket. People were alarmed. People have a lot of fear."