On June 2nd 2015, the Daily News reported that a 69-year-old man from Brooklyn scammed area residents out of thousands of dollars by posing as an immigration attorney licensed to provide immigration services. His fraud was uncovered as a result of an undercover sting operation by law enforcement. He is the first one to be charged under the New York State law that protects immigrants from fraudulent immigration services.
Unfortunately, immigration scams are not uncommon. Just a few years ago, in 2012, a family of con artists received a combined 418-year prison sentence for defrauding fellow Caribbean immigrants out of $1.8 million, with the father posing as a federal agent and falsely promising that they could help get client names off the terror watch lists or obtain green cards for their clients.
Prior to that, in 2009, a then 59-year-old Bronx resident was arrested for posing as an attorney and defrauding clients, most of whom are Latino immigrants. After successful prosecution by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, the man pleaded guilty to charges of grand larceny, forgery, scheme to defraud, and unauthorized practice of law in New York State Supreme Court and was sentenced to a term of imprisonment.
I’ve actually had an opportunity to assist one of this man’s victims. The client was from the Dominican Republic and entered the country legally with a tourist visa. After a marriage to a U.S. citizen that broke down, he sought the services of this man to assist him with the removal of temporary conditions on his conditional green card, thinking he was a legitimate attorney.
This should have been a straightforward application, since immigration law contemplates that not all marriages survive and the law allows a conditional resident to apply for the removal of conditions without the U.S. citizen’s assistance. This is called a waiver of joint filing and is granted when the marriage was entered in good faith but:
- It terminated by divorce or annulment;
- The conditional resident was abused or subjected to extreme mental cruelty; or
- Extreme hardship would result if the conditional resident were removed from the United States.
However, because the “lawyer” did not file the correct paperwork for the victim, the period to remove the conditions lapsed and the victim was placed in deportation proceedings. He is still fighting the deportation case. His only hope is an approval of an immigration waiver. A judge is yet to decide on his case.
In certain Latino communities, fraud occurs because of a misunderstanding regarding the authority of a “notary public”, which translates to “notario” or “notario publico” in Spanish. In many Latin American countries a “notario” refers to someone who has the authority to render legal services. In the United States, a notary public is an appointed impartial witness to the signing of important documents. They verify the identity of the signers of legal documents and are not authorized to render legal services.
Unscrupulous “notarios” who are not attorneys often rely on this misunderstanding to exploit immigrants. They charge immigrants excessive application fees without ever submitting applications to the immigration authorities or may induce deportation by submitting applications for relief for which the immigrant is not eligible for or did not request. Here’s a list of businesses that are prohibited from providing any immigration-related services.
Read about this and other common forms of immigration fraud on the NY Attorney General’s Immigration Services Fraud Initiative website.
DON’T BE A VICTIM
Do not let this happen to you. Here are several tips on how to avoid becoming a victim of immigration fraud:
- Only retain the services of a licensed immigration attorney or a licensed Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) Representative. Before you retain the services of an attorney, make sure that you research the person’s background thoroughly. To find out if your attorney is licensed and in good standing, do a quick search using the attorney’s name on the Attorney Search page of the NYS Unified Court System or call 212-428-2800.
- Learn about your own case. Make sure that you know and understand all the legal issues in your case and the remedies proposed by your attorney. Ask your attorney to explain any terms that you are unfamiliar with and concepts that are difficult for you to understand. A good attorney will take the time out to explain not only the strengths of your case, but also the difficulties you may encounter, different options and possible outcomes.
- Ask for a written contract of the services you are paying for and the contact information of the services provider. Ask for their credentials, business card and a receipt as proof of payment.
- Ask your attorney for a copy of your own immigration file. You have a right to all your immigration documents. Make sure that your attorney provides you with a complete file containing copies of petitions filed and correspondence with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or immigration court. You can also order a copy of your own immigration file by submitting a Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act Request (FOIA):
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
National Records Center, FOIA/PA Office
P. O. Box 648010
Lee’s Summit, MO 64064-8010
Live Assistance: 800-375-5283
REPORT IMMIGRATION FRAUD
If you or someone you know have been victimized by a person pretending to be an attorney or authorized BIA representative, here are some resources to get help:
- NY Attorney General’s Office: Immigration Services Fraud Unit Hotline, 866-390-2992, or fill out the Complaint Form.
- Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office: 718-250-333 or fill out the Complaint Form.
- Manhattan District Attorney’s Office: 212-335-3600.
- Queens District Attorney’s Office: 718-286-6690 or email OIA@queensda.org.
- For all other areas in NYC: Call 311.
- Federal Trade Commission: With the FTC Complaint Assistant, you can file a complaint against a service provider in the United States for identity theft; scams and rip-offs; unwanted telemarketing, text or spam; substandard services for mobile devices or telephones; complaints for internet services, online shopping, or computers; education, jobs, and making money schemes; credit and debt (predatory lending); and others.
- USCIS: Click here for a list of offices in the United States where you can file a report.
Angela Antonia Torregoza, Esq. is an Associate Attorney at Scott Legal, P.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 646.527.7292 Ext. 140.