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Know Your Rights
Source: Queens Chronicle
Subject: Legal Services
Type: Media Coverage

Clinic Helps Prevent Immigration Scams

Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) invited immigrants to participate in an educational legal workshop on Sunday, after scam artists targeting immigrants with false promises of legal papers were recently prosecuted by the attorney general.

Months ago, 13 people walked into Dromm’s Jackson Heights office, all claiming to have been taken advantage of by the American Immigrant Federation, a group which ran a fraudulent nonprofit organization with over 20,000 clients on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights.

The 13 were among thousands who fell victim to a scam that targeted immigrants. Led by Estela Figueredo, AIF was accused of charging exorbitant fees, giving misinformation, misfiling papers and practicing law without authorization.

Although AIF was forced to stop all of its immigration services and pay $1.2 million in restitution to its victims after settling with the Attorney General’s Office, Dromm said “many unscrupulous groups continue to prey on our families, friends, and neighbors.” He encouraged victims of the scam to step forward to be considered for restitution.

After learning of the crime, Dromm’s attorney, Sebastian Maguire, came up with the idea of holding a free workshop to inform undocumented immigrants about illegal immigration fraud, and their rights.

The workshop took place at Make the Road New York, a community based organization that provides education and legal services to low-income Latinos. It offered information tables, tips on how to recognize fraudulent services, and one-on-one sessions with an attorney to discuss individual cases.

Dromm said one of the reasons scam artists have set up shop recently in Queens is because “there is a lack of comprehensive immigration reform on the federal level.”

However, there is also the issue of how the scams are being advertised. “All along Roosevelt Avenue, you see stores that say ‘notario.’ … But in English, a notary is not a lawyer. I want to warn my Latino constituents,” Dromm said.

In the United States, a notary only has the power to witness the signing of legal documents. However, in many of the home countries of the immigrants who came to the workshop, a notary may serve as a lawyer. This is where the confusion sets in.

Because notaries hold a greater degree of legal power in Latin American countries, some of the notarios advertising in Jackson Heights dupe immigrants into believing that it is not only legal for them to charge for advice, but that they can get them citizenship papers if they pay thousands of dollars.

“Nobody should be giving money to notarios,” Dromm said. “People need to be cautious.”

Korean immigrant Julia Noh, who is currently in the United States through a visa, and who came with her mother and brothers two years ago, sought the help of a lawyer who was supposed to help her family obtain certain papers so they might open a juice bar in Manhattan. However, six months later, after paying him $5,000, they found the lawyer had disappeared.

“We didn’t know what was going on,” Noh said. “I was very shocked. I didn’t think it could happen to me.”

Noh’s mother, Kathy Kim said “We lost all of our money. It was a very difficult time.”

But the case of disappearing lawyers is not uncommon.

Fausto, a man who came to the workshop and who requested to be identified by his first name only, said he had visited a lawyer last year in lower Manhattan who promised to get him immigration documentation if he paid $9,000. After paying $6,000, he received a work permit, but when he finished paying the remainder of the money, he too found his lawyer had disappeared.

“I came today to find out if I can do something because I have an interview with immigration next week,” he said.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I’m very nervous — I have a wife and daughter. I feel terrible.”

According to Maguire, immigrants who have been taken advantage of should file a complaint with the attorney general. Maguire said the office will then look at the nature of the case, to determine what can be done.

Amy Carroll, the legal director of Make the Road New York, said, “It can be very confusing to figure out where to go once you’ve paid all this money.”

“People often think, ‘have I exposed myself to possibly getting deported because I filed something incorrectly?’
” she added.

“ While undocumented immigrants who are taken advantage of by fraudulent organizations are victims, under a new Secure Communities program the fingerprints of anyone arrested or convicted of a crime will be submitted to an immigration database. New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services recently entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security so that undocumented immigrants who are charged with crimes may face deportation whether they are guilty or innocent.

An undocumented immigrant may therefore be frightened to report scam artists to police, for fear of being charged with a crime since he or she may have paid for illegal services.

The Secure Communities program is already underway in many municipalities across the country.

As chairman of the city’s Immigration Committee, Dromm said he is opposed to the Secure Communities program. “It concerns me tremendously. Our rights are being eroded.”

“It seems unjust to me,” he said. “Immigrants are our brothers and sisters. Their reasons for coming to the U.S. are the same as our ancestors’ were.”