BOISE, Idaho — Eight Romanians who arrived in Idaho a decade ago face deportation after federal prosecutors say they entered sham marriages to stay illegally in America.
Some were students, lured by work at the famed Sun Valley Resort. Some were friends, siblings or cousins from mountainous Transylvania. Since then, they've established lives in the U.S., buying homes, having kids and starting businesses. They formed the nucleus of a tight-knit Romanian community in south-central Idaho.
But U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson said they all lied to stay: Since 2012, seven have pleaded guilty to fraud, while another awaits U.S. District Court proceedings in Boise. Though it could be months before their cases go through federal immigration courts, the Romanians' fate is likely sealed: They'll have to exit, forbidden to ever return.
"They're not just having to leave the country," Olson said. "They're having to figure out what to do about homes, businesses and loved ones."
Victor Raul Fenesan, 32; his partner, Claudia Luminita Beian, 34; Ramona Fleischer, 32; her husband, Florin Fleischer, 33; Simona Rus, 31; Stefan Csaba Csep, 32; and Lucean Ioan Belean, 30, have all pleaded guilty to immigration-related fraud. An eighth person was indicted in October.
In their early 20s, the Romanians began arriving around 2002, having been recruited, in part, by the Sun Valley Resort.
It hires hundreds of foreign workers, usually on three- to six-month visas to work in landscaping, restaurants and housekeeping. For the Romanians, it's a chance to travel, practice English and earn cash. Sun Valley's paying guests are treated to an international flair.
"Plus, we have dorms," said spokesman Jack Sibbach. "Housing is very important."
But prosecutors and federal investigators contend the Romanians' zeal to stay led them to offer U.S. citizens cash for fraudulent marriages, resulting in eight green cards, eventual citizenship for six of them — and the accompanying opportunities the U.S. economy affords ambitious immigrants.
For instance, Simona Rus now owns a Ketchum cleaning business. Claudia Beian owns downtown Boise's Lunchbox waxing salon; her partner, Victor Fenesan, works at a Ford dealership.
And Florin and Ramona Fleischer run Home Media Solutions in Ketchum, installing theaters in houses of the resort region's affluent.
Richard Cross, the Boise-based U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigator credited with exposing the scheme, said the group's successes were built on deceit: Falsified documents and lies to officials who vetted their applications for residency and citizenship.
In 2012, Cross was wrapping up a marriage and immigration fraud investigation involving Peruvians and Idaho residents when he saw an obscure reader comment on the Sun Valley newspaper's website suggested that someone look at the Romanian community.
"Had it not been for the comment in the newspaper, I would have never opened the case," Cross said. "I just wanted to look. I was wondering, too: What were Romanians doing in the middle of nowhere in Idaho?"
Though most of the Romanians declined interviews, Ramona Fleischer acknowledged Thursday the allure of an American future prompted her to cut legal corners. Originally from the historic salt mining town of Turda, she says she studied law in Romania, but came to view Idaho as a way to break free from her home country's rusty Communist past.
"We did use the wrong avenues," said Fleischer. "We looked at it as a way to open up, to allow ourselves to be who we are."
She married a baseball player at the College of Southern Idaho, in nearby Twin Falls. Florin, her boyfriend from home, married another Idaho woman.
After divorces in 2007 and 2008, they married each other.
Now resigned to returning to Romania — her federal immigration hearing is Feb. 7 — Ramona Fleischer remains frustrated U.S. officials haven't targeted American former spouses. "They also broke the law," she contends. "So why am I being treated differently?"
Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin Whatcott, who led the government's prosecution, said the five-year statute of limitations for marriage fraud had expired for the U.S. citizens. Additionally, Whatcott said, the Americans largely cooperated.
Meanwhile, the Romanians' crimes — falsifying immigration records, lying to officials — remained valid in the courts.
"Citizenship is one of the most precious gifts our country can give to an immigrant," Whatcott said. "When somebody obtains it by fraud, that's something we don't take lightly. These are otherwise good people, which makes it a little bit of a tragic story."
Four months ago, Ramona and Florin Fleischer had a son, Ari, a legal American citizen. For the next few months, she'll be busy securing his U.S. passport to travel to Romania — once a judge orders his parents out. Their house must be sold, the business unwound.
Still, she optimistically points out Romania is far different from when she left; it's now part of the European Union. Her English is excellent. "There's a lot of opportunity for people with our skills," she said. "We're just going to go open-minded."