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Immigration News 2014: 'Assistance' Organizations Scammed Millions from Immigrants, Deadline to File Claims Approaches

First Posted: Sep 21, 2014 02:14 PM EDT
Immigrants Become US Citizens During Naturalization Ceremony At Liberty State Park

Photo : Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

There is still time for people to file claims for compensation after they were scammed out of thousands of dollars by two of the nation's largest immigration service organizations.

The $2.2 million fund, being administered by the New York Legal Assistance Group, was created as part of a court settlement as restitution to immigrants defrauded by the International Immigrants Foundation and International Professional Association.

The filing time for claims closes on Oct. 23. 

"To date we have received 1,000 claims -- not nearly representative of how many people we know are eligible. Too many immigrants still remain unaware of the existence of the fund, and may be afraid to come forward. The Oct. 23 deadline fast approaches, and -- unless awareness increases -- immigrants and their families will not receive the money they deserve," said Yisroel Schulman, NYLAG's President and Attorney-in-Charge.

In 2010, the New York State Attorney General's Office, then under the leadership of Andrew Cuomo, filed a lawsuit against the IIF and IPA and their president, Edward Juarez, for defrauding immigrants with promises of citizenship and residency and charging exorbitant fees for services. 

The lawsuit followed a series of complaints about the organizations not delivering on the promises they made.

During an undercover investigation, the Attorney General's office found the organizations had "repeatedly engaged in and/or facilitated deceptive, fraudulent, illegal and discriminatory business practices when they lured immigrants to purchase 'memberships' promising them in return low-cost legal fees."

Once someone paid their membership fee, however, they were directed to IPA to pay additional fees to have immigration papers filed, often by people who were not qualified lawyers.

According to the complaint, a person sought immigration-related legal services and was first required to pay an initial registration fee of $100 plus a monthly fee of $30 to become and remain a member of IFF. The member was then required to pay a $500 consultation fee and at least several thousand dollars more to have immigration papers prepared and filed.

"Too often we hear about vulnerable immigrants preyed upon by notaries and other unauthorized practitioners of law who charge outrageous fees with wrongful assurances of citizenship and residency," said Steven Choi, Executive Director of the New York Immigration Coalition.

"The NYIC is committed to tackling immigration fraud, and with the recent passage of the Immigrant Assistance Service Enforcement Act, which targets those attempting to defraud immigrants and widens the mandate to provide quality services for immigrants, we will be working with the State to ensure that immigrants have access to legitimate resources that make it less and less likely they will be taken advantage of by unscrupulous actors."

Another complaint involved Maria Mejia who lived in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, who was recruited by a church in Brooklyn to work with its growing Honduran youth population. The church scraped together $20,000 to pay IIF to secure a special religious visa for Maria. She was told that she would soon be able to apply to bring her children to join her. After she arrived in the U.S., however, IIF dropped her case -- leaving her children stranded in Honduras because Maria could not on her own complete the necessary paperwork to have them join her, as was their right, under the provisions of her visa.

After three years of separation -- and increasing violence in Honduras -- Maria tried to bring her sons to the U.S. on a visitor visa, but the window of legal opportunity had closed. She was told the wait would be seven years.

NYLAG contacted Maria in 2012 while conducting a court-ordered review of IIF's case files. Her attorney successfully argued that her youngest son was immediately eligible for permanent residence in the U.S. Shortly thereafter, Maria became eligible for U.S. citizenship and is now eagerly waiting to take the citizenship test.

The phone hotline to call to make inquiries about the fund is 212-514-4265.

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