LOS ANGELES – A Paso Robles couple pleaded guilty late this afternoon to federal charges of harboring illegal aliens who were smuggled into the United States and worked under sub-standard conditions at the couple’s elder care facilities.

Maximino Morales, 45, and Melinda Morales, 48, of Paso Robles, each pleaded guilty today to conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens, a felony charge that carries a statutory maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison.

“The Filipino workers illegally brought to this country with promises of decent jobs were instead subjected to abusive working conditions and threats designed to keep them working for less than the minimum wage,” said United States Attorney André Birotte Jr. “We are committed to protecting workers, no matter their status in the United States. Those who try to circumvent our nation’s immigration and employment laws for financial gain will be prosecuted and punished.”

Maximino and Melinda Morales, both natives of the Philippines, operated four elder care facilities under the umbrella of Four M’s, Inc. They recruited Filipino nationals to come to the United States with promises of work as live-in caregivers. According to their plea agreements, an associate in the Philippines helped the aliens obtain fraudulent visas that allowed them to travel to the United States. After they arrived, “some of the aliens worked alone in 24-hour shifts…as caregivers at one of the Four M’s elder care residential facilities for less than minimum wage,” both defendants admitted in their plea agreements. “All of the aliens lived in the care facilities, and some of the aliens slept in a closet, on a sofa, and in a walled-off portion of an unheated, attached garage.” The aliens’ pay was credited against the “debt” they purportedly owed, and the aliens were told that police or immigration authorities would be summoned if they attempted to leave.

“The case against Mr. and Mrs. Morales reflects the importance the FBI places in investigations involving smuggled workers and possible civil rights violations,” said Steven Martinez, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI in Los Angeles. “The victims in this case displayed tremendous courage in coming forward, and their actions will likely embolden other victims to report these crimes, as well as raise awareness with others who may not recognize signs of alien smuggling and potential human trafficking.”

As part of their plea agreements Maximino and Melinda Morales have agreed to pay restitution of at least $500,000 to approximately ten Filipinos who were not properly paid for the work they performed.

The FBI arrested Maximino and Melinda Morales on March 30, 2010 when special agents executed search warrants in Paso Robles.

Maximino and Melinda Morales pleaded guilty before United States District Judge Valerie Baker Fairbank, who is scheduled to sentence the defendants on September 19.

The investigation in this case was conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which received assistance from the California Department of Social Services, Community Care Licensing Division and the United States Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security.