Neighbors noticed the warning signs — vehicles dropping off large groups of people, who would then nervously scurry into the San Diego home.
When police officers arrived to investigate the property in November, the home’s resident, Dania Olivero, told them she had invited friends over to drink beer. But when they stepped inside the home, officers noticed no one was drinking — the beer cans were unopened and appeared to have just been pulled from the refrigerator.
Instead, Olivero, 51, was running a “drop” house for undocumented immigrants, federal authorities said. On her property police found 44 people, mostly from Mexico and two from Guatemala. Some said they had been locked in a small backyard shed with dozens of others — without light or ventilation according to a federal complaint. There was no bathroom, so those in the shed were forced to use only a bucket.
Federal authorities charged her with harboring and concealing undocumented immigrants. On Thursday, a U.S. district judge sentenced Olivero to three years and one month in prison, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Olivero is a Cuban living legally in the United States.
After her arrest, Olivero told Border Patrol agents she had been involved in harboring the immigrants since 2014. She did it at the request of a man, “Juan,” whom she met at a bar. Juan then told her that he’d be bringing some friends to her house and that he’d pick them up in the morning, according to the complaint. To pay her rent, she agreed to temporarily house the immigrants, she told authorities. On some previous occasions she had been paid $50 for each person she kept in her home.
Concealing immigrants was an act of desperation to make ends meet, attorney Hootan Baigmohammadi said, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. The father of four of her children had died in 2011, and an accident that left her with an injured wrist made it hard to work. She also was raising her partner’s two young children, whose mother had been deported. She worked odd jobs and relied financially on food stamps, recycling cans and support from her oldest son.
“Life became really difficult for me,” Olivero wrote in a letter to the judge, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. The judge said the number of people, as well as the grim conditions they were kept in, made it an aggravated crime.
Witnesses told authorities that on one occasion there were so many people sleeping on Olivero’s floor that it was a struggle to maneuver through the home. Olivero was heard telling various people coming to the house not to use the front door because she didn’t want to draw too much attention and “burn” the house.
Some of the undocumented immigrants, who were later placed into the custody of immigration authorities pending immigration proceedings, said they agreed to pay $5,000-$8,500 to be smuggled into the United States. At least one immigrant was an unaccompanied minor. One said he was not given any food or water while in Olivero’s shed.
Olivero’s attorney argued that on most occasions, no more than a handful of immigrants would stay at her home, but on Nov. 6, the situation spiraled out of her control, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. Five to seven waves of people came, her attorney said.
“I did it without thinking,” Olivero told the judge, apologizing for her actions. “I did it to pay my rent.”