Sarai Verges, 42, arrived in New York from Mexico 20 years ago. When she applied for a marriage license with her fiancé, a U.S. citizen, it was denied on the grounds that his divorce in the Dominican Republic wasn’t valid. At the recommendation of her church in Queens, Verges and her fiancé went to an immigration service provider to legalize the divorce.
For years, she inquired about the status of their case and was repeatedly told it was pending. It wasn’t until 2011, after the New York attorney general filed a lawsuit for fraud against the company she used, that she learned the case had been abandoned and closed 10 years earlier.
“The problem was in all this time I could not get a permit to work,” Verges said. “The only one working is my spouse.”
Immigration assistance fraud is a nationwide problem that hits New York City especially hard: More than 37 percent of city residents are foreign-born, according to the city planning department. Fraudulent immigration service providers prey on hopeful new arrivals ready to hand over cash for promises of citizenship or work permits.
Last month Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation making immigration assistance fraud a felony when clients are defrauded of more than $1,000. The Immigrant Assistance Service Enforcement Act also creates stronger consumer protections for clients and establishes the right to sue shoddy service providers.
Official figures illustrating the extent of the problem are scant. The Manhattan district attorney established an Immigrant Affairs Program in late 2007, with a hotline that has received more than 2,500 complaints since its inception, most related to immigration fraud. Since the Immigration Fraud Unit in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office was established in March, it has gotten 80 to 100 cases referred to it, with 25 cases currently under investigation.
But those familiar with immigration fraud say many victims are fearful to report being defrauded because they are in the country illegally.
“This is a hugely underreported crime,” said Matthew Blaisdell, an immigration lawyer based in Brooklyn who helped craft the legislation. “Part of the goal of this legislation is to bring more light to the number of victims.”
In Hispanic communities, the problem is often known as notario fraud. Hot spots of notario activity in New York City include stretches of Jackson Heights, Washington Heights and Sunset Park. A 2012 report by New Immigrant Community Empowerment that used people posing as potential clients found that nearly 1 in 3 immigrant service providers approached made false promises. Misleading signage was also common.
Notarios operate openly, and many profit from the confusion around the translation of their name. While in the U.S. a notary is a person who witnesses signatures to legal documents, in many Latin American countries, a notario publico is similar to a lawyer.
Aleimi Castillo is an immigration service provider and licensed notary who assists immigrants with their forms in the Bronx. She frequently sees the confusion among her clients who may expect help choosing which forms to fill out. But this is considered legal advice, which she is not allowed to give.
“Most of my customers are Hispanic, so I do have to explain to them that I’m not a lawyer and that I can’t answer certain questions,” said Castillo.
While the confusion around the term “notario” disproportionately affects Hispanic immigrants, it is only one type of immigration fraud, which concerns all immigrant communities.
“Almost every group comes from a country where immigration is done differently,” said Blaisdell.
These differences can become a point of vulnerability. In many Asian countries, for example, immigration services are routinely offered in travel agencies. In Chinatown, fraud is more likely to happen out of a travel business than a notary, he explained.
At a minimum, fraudulent immigrant service providers waste their clients’ time and money. At their worst, they may submit falsified or sloppy applications that result in deportation.
When Fatou (her name has been changed) arrived in the Bronx from Côte d’Ivoire several years ago, she expected to become a U.S. citizen through her husband. But repeated incidents of domestic abuse drove her to leave him and seek immigration advice; she had only conditional residency through the marriage.
A man she found in a local newspaper recommended she file for divorce rather than for a battered spouse waiver that would have allowed her to circumvent her husband and keep her residency. His advice cost Fatou much more than the $3,000 in cash and money orders she had collected from members of her church. The paperwork that his assistants filed on her behalf was incomplete and poorly assembled, and her petition was denied. She is now in removal proceedings, facing deportation.
“Unfortunately, this type of case is not at all uncommon,” said Terry Lawson, a supervisor on Fatou’s case and the director of immigration and family law at Legal Services NYC.
Part of the difficulty in combating this problem is that many immigrants don’t even know they’ve been defrauded, said Bridget Splain a project coordinator at Mercy Center, a Bronx community center that provides literacy classes and helps immigrants prepare for citizenship tests.
She said her clients often report paying immigration service providers fees that could have been waived, on top of other exorbitant fees.
“There is so much misinformation within immigrant communities,” said Splain. “By the time we hear the stories of people paying thousands of dollars, it’s usually too late.”
She pointed out that some immigration service providers operate very informally through networks of friends and families. They are quickly trusted but later become hard to track drown.
Fortunately for Verges — who was defrauded by a company run by Eduardo Juarez, a Spanish-language radio personality and former El Diario columnist — she can apply for compensation under a $2.2 million restitution fund that Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced in July for victims of the International Immigrants Foundation and the International Professional Association. Juarez ran both companies, falsely promising citizenship, among other claims, to thousands of immigrants. The New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) is administering the process, and claims may be filed until the end of October.
The attorney general’s office has been fighting immigration fraud since Cuomo held the position and launched a broad investigation into dozens of companies in 2009.
While these efforts, along with those of the New York City district attorney offices, remain critical legal tools and demonstrate increased attention to the issue, they have been much more effective at uncovering major operations like Juarez’s than aiding in individual cases.
Until now, immigration lawyers have warned clients that there is little opportunity for recourse because consumer protection laws aren’t strong enough to file lawsuits against specific actors. This is what advocates hope the new law will change.
Already immigration lawyers are eager to test the limits of the new law. Sam Palmer-Simon, a NYLAG lawyer, said the group is seeking plaintiffs.
“We’re trying to get the word out about how to report fraud, and we’re hoping that the monetary incentive of the criminal penalty will bring victims forward,” he said.
Critics point out that the law fails to define the term “legal advice,” which may make prosecutions difficult. For many seeking services, it may still be unclear what a provider without a legal degree may do for them. Other states, including Washington and Wisconsin, have passed similar laws that more clearly outline what immigrant service providers may do.
"The real weakness of the law is that it doesn’t make it very easy for consumers to know who can do what,” said Blaisdell. A lot of mistakes happen simply in the process of choosing forms and advising how to fill those out, he explained.
Educating immigrants will remain a key part of the strategy to combat the problem, advocates agree. Immigration service business tends to increase when there is discussion of reform, and fraudulent companies may use it to advertise programs that don’t even exist.
“Sometimes our job is to tell people, ‘Hold on to your money. There’s nothing to apply for right now,’” said Palmer-Simon. “But it’s better that we tell them that than they to go to a fake lawyer and lose their money.”
“We really need to empower our immigrant community with information,” said Jorge Montalvo, director of New York State’ Office of New Americans. “That is really the first line of defense.”
Victims like Verges have learned caution the hard way. “The only thing I can say is you have to be careful who you trust and who you consult with,” she said.