Police in Elizabeth, New Jersey arrested a woman for allegedly posing as an attorney and offering legal services to immigrants to assist them in filing documents with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Prosecutors in Union County then charged Mariza Chavez, age 44, with theft by deception and numerous other charges.
Chavez allegedly operated an organization from several addresses in Elizabeth that purported to offer immigration legal services. Posing as an attorney, prosecutors say, Chavez would charge between $80 and $6,000 for a variety of immigration services, which they say she was neither licensed nor trained to provide. She has reportedly operated such a group in Elizabeth for at least five years, and may have operated a similar organization in New York in the past. It is not clear if she actually filed applications with USCIS on behalf of her “clients,” but the Star-Ledger reports that, whenever anyone inquired about their applications, Chavez would give “various explanations for the rejections” and say she had received a refund of the fee.
An attorney representing three of Chavez’s alleged victims reported the matter to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office in September 2011. Investigators have reportedly interviewed ten possible victims and are examining immigration applications Chavez may have filed.
Prosecutors charged Chavez with multiple third degree crimes, including several counts of theft by deception, relating to the alleged false pretenses of claiming to be a lawyer, and failure to make a required disposition of property, for retaining money paid for legal fees and expenses. They also charged her with the fourth degree offense of unauthorized practice of law.
Immigration legal services are a ripe field for unscrupulous individuals seeking to defraud members of the immigrant population. This can be a case of members of a specific immigrant community targeting other members, or someone advertising fraudulent services to immigrants in general. Most often, fraudulent schemes involve offers to assist with immigration paperwork such as visa or green card applications, and may include some guarantee of fast or preferential service.
Generally speaking, only licensed attorneys are legally authorized to provide immigration services to the public. This includes drafting and filing petitions for visas or green cards, applications for citizenship by naturalization, representation in any sort of matter before an immigration judge, and legal advice on any specific immigration issue. No one, unfortunately, can offer any specific advantage in getting an application processed quickly or guaranteeing approval. United States immigration law is extremely complex, and it can even be difficult to understand for lawyers who do not focus their practice on immigration law.
Immigrant populations, to someone operating such a scheme, make tempting targets for a variety of reasons. Some immigrants will trust members of their own community more than others, and scammers may take advantage of that. The complexity of U.S. immigration law may draw some immigrants to a person offering a quick or easy solution. Undocumented immigrants may be driven by desperation to seek out the services of a scammer. The problem is serious enough that the federal government itself launched an initiative last year to educate immigrants about potential scams.
The New Jersey immigration lawyers at Samuel C. Berger, P.C. help immigrants seeking visas and other immigration benefits to understand and navigate the complex immigration system. Contact us online or at (212) 380-8117 to schedule a consultation with one of our skilled attorneys today.
More Blog Posts:
Low-Income New Jersey Immigrants Fight Wage Theft, Other Violations of Workplace Laws, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, February 9, 2012
Family Convicted of Defrauding New York Immigrants in Green Card Scam, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, February 3, 2012
Federal Officials Launch Immigration Scam Education Campaign, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, December 22, 2011
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