The promise of jobs and an education for their children was used to lure overstayers into a passport scam that ended yesterday with the jailing of the man who took their money.
Gerard Otimi was yesterday jailed for 18 months for leading 38 people on with the false hope they could stay in New Zealand - while taking $500 for a "stamp" on their passports.
One victim, Metala Leaupepe, told the Manukau District Court she had paid thousands to immigration consultants but could not get residency.
"I was exhausted in making my ... immigration application through agents and the answer was always declined."
Otimi held meetings at marae in Mangere, Manurewa and Hamilton where he told overstayers they could avoid deportation if they paid him $500 to be adopted or "whangai'ed" into his hapu.
The mostly Tongan and Samoan victims also had their passports stamped and signed by Otimi, and were given hapu certificates giving them "permission to remain in Aotearoa NZ as a hapu whangai".
But the stamps and certificates were worthless.
Judge Gus Andree Wiltens said the certificates "read impressively but have no real meaning".
Statements on the certificate mentioned Queen Elizabeth II and used official language.
"It was clearly designed to impress people with a limited level of English ability," the judge said.
Otimi was found guilty of 38 counts of altering a document with intent to cause loss.
He was acquitted of a further seven charges at his hearing in April where Mrs Leaupepe gave evidence.
Yesterday's sentencing was interrupted by Otimi's supporters, one of whom challenged Judge Andree Wiltens' right to pass sentence in the case.
A man who identified himself as Akarana Rewi was given permission to address the judge.
"Show me and my people the written authority that overrides the common law of my people," he said.
The judge told him that if he wished to challenge the court's jurisdiction, he could do so on appeal.
The judge had to ask Otimi to enter the dock on more than one occasion. Otimi wore a feather cloak and showed little emotion.
Judge Andree Wiltens said it was not only the 38 people he had heard from at the hearing - many more had been taken in by Otimi, who targeted some of the most vulnerable people in New Zealand society.
"South Auckland has a large population from the Pacific Islands who have issues with Immigration because of the fact that they can't be in New Zealand."
Crown prosecutor Chris Merrick said it was not the first time Otimi had been involved in operating a scam. He referred to his conviction on two charges in 2004 after he issued fake warrants of fitness and driver's licences.
Otimi's lawyer, Neil Thinn, said it was important to note that in the victim impact statements there was mention of thousands paid to immigration consultants, whereas Otimi charged $500.
"He believed he could help them."
Mr Thinn pointed out that all the money had been recovered and could be returned to the victims.
Judge Andree Wiltens said he had been "pushing" Otimi towards home detention but because of his lack of co-operation with the Probation Service, he could not sentence him to anything but prison.
He did give Otimi the chance to apply for home detention at a later date.
Judge Andree Wiltens said each of the witnesses who came to court would be refunded their $500.
Other claimants can apply for their share of the remaining $28,500 seized by police.