BANGOR, Maine — A former Harrington resident once lauded for helping Spanish-speaking workers in coastal Maine was sentenced Wednesday in U.S. District Court to two years and nine months in federal prison.
Juan Centeno Perez, 48, pleaded guilty in November to charges of visa fraud, harboring and transporting illegal aliens and conspiracy to hire illegal aliens to work at a sea cucumber processing plant in Lubec and at his wife’s restaurant on U.S. Route 1 in Hancock.
He faced up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on the most serious charges of visa fraud and harboring illegal aliens. Under the prevailing sentencing guidelines, Centeno Perez faced between 2½ years and three years and one month in prison.
His wife, Doris Amanda Ayala Escalante, 40, of Hancock was sentenced in March 2008 to one year and two months in federal prison on similar charges. She has been released.
Centeno Perez is expected to be deported to his native Mexico after completing his prison term and barred from re-entering the U.S.
Centeno Perez’s daughters, ages 15 and 16, sat behind him throughout Wednesday’s proceeding but did not address the court. The girls were born in the U.S. and are citizens.
“I apologize to immigration and to the authorities of the nation and to your honor and to my daughters,” Centeno Perez told U.S. District Judge John Woodcock through an interpreter.
In imposing the sentence, Woodcock said Centeno Perez had demonstrated an ability to rise above his circumstances and run businesses in Down East Maine.
“You came to the U.S. illegally,” Woodcock said, “and for the past 20 years you’ve lived in the shadows. Because you were here illegally, you began acting illegally.”
Centeno Perez and Escalante are citizens of Mexico and entered the U.S. illegally in the late 1980s. He applied for asylum in 1991 using a false Guatemalan birth certificate, the judge said. The couple married in 1993.
Both were indicted by a federal grand jury in September 2007, but Centeno Perez fled the country. Escalante was released on July 2, 2008, after completing her prison term. The time she was held without bail before sentencing was applied to her sentence.
Three days after Escalante’s release, her husband was arrested on a fugitive warrant at the Toronto airport after flying to Canada from Mexico. Centeno Perez returned to Maine in June 2009 after fighting extradition. He pleaded guilty to the charges in November.
Since her husband’s arrest, Escalante has filed for divorce, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Torresen, who prosecuted the case.
Under U.S. immigration law, Escalante may be allowed to remain in the U.S. because she is a victim of domestic violence. Woodcock sentenced her to half the time recommended under the federal sentencing guidelines. He said at her sentencing that “she was coerced into doing activities she would not” have otherwise considered, according to a story previously published in the Bangor Daily News.
The judge Wednesday spoke to Centeno Perez about domestic violence.
“I would urge you, Mr. Centeno Perez, to take a long look in the mirror,” Woodcock said, “and think about the way you’re treating women. Then think about whether you want your daughters treated the way you’ve treated the women in your life.”
Centeno Perez and Escalante opened a store and restaurant nine years ago to serve the needs of the growing Hispanic community in Washington and Hancock counties. Before it was discovered they were in the U.S. illegally, they were praised by Down East residents for their service to their fellow Hispanics.
Escalante continues to operate the restaurant in Hancock with relatives.