Cuomo Widens A Probe Into Immigration Fraud

Cuomo Widens a Probe Into Immigration Fraud

By Kirk Semple and Jenny Manrique
The New York Times, May 28, 2009

Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo said Thursday that his office had issued more than 50 subpoenas to individuals and businesses in New York City including numerous immigrant-assistance organizations, a travel agency, an English-language school and a church as part of a widening investigation into immigration fraud.

Customers have complained that the businesses and their directors have masqueraded as legitimate providers of immigrant services, many offering legal aid they are not authorized or able to provide, officials in Mr. Cuomos office said. Some immigrants told investigators that they were falsely promised permanent residency or American citizenship, even though the firms or individuals were not qualified to secure such benefits.

'Immigrant communities across New York City continue to be put in jeopardy by unscrupulous individuals and organizations offering them nothing more than empty promises and false hopes,' Mr. Cuomo said in a statement.

Immigration fraud, often orchestrated by immigrants, has proliferated across the country, victimizing people desperate to gain legal residency or citizenship. Law enforcement officials say such schemes are particularly difficult to uncover and prosecute because many victims are in the country illegally and are hesitant to seek help from the authorities for fear of deportation.

Under state and federal law, only lawyers or representatives accredited by the Justice Department can represent people before the immigration authorities, Mr. Cuomos office said. Anyone providing immigration services must also comply with strict rules governing contracts and advertising.

Mr. Cuomos office said that it had not filed charges against the recipients of the subpoenas, and that it was simply seeking business records and testimony to determine whether the firms had committed fraud.

Ricardo Reis, director of the American Immigrant Federation, an immigrant services organization in Times Square that was served subpoenas on Thursday, said, 'I categorically deny that there have been fraudulent practices, and we do welcome the opportunity to present our side of the story.'

Mr. Reis said he applauded Mr. Cuomos investigation because of the severity and scope of immigration fraud in the state. 'Theyre throwing a lot of stuff at a lot of people,' he said of the prosecutors, but added, 'A lot of it is warranted, Im sure.'

One target of the investigation, Iglesia Pentecostal Roca de Salvacion Eterna in Corona, Queens, is already the subject of legal action. The office of the Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown, has filed charges against three people, including the churchs two pastors, accusing them of defrauding more than 100 immigrants of hundreds of thousands of dollars by falsely promising them visas and green cards. Phone messages left on Thursday for lawyers for two defendants went unanswered, and the lawyer for the third refused to comment.

The subpoenas came about two weeks after Mr. Cuomos office filed a lawsuit against a Dominican businesswoman in Queens, Miriam Mercedes Hernandez, accusing her of running an immigration scheme that defrauded at least 38 people out of about $250,000.

After the suit was publicized this month, officials in Mr. Cuomos office said, a public hot line that the office set up last fall to take complaints of immigration fraud was flooded with calls, including some from people who said they had been among Ms. Hernandezs clients. The officials said they made Thursdays announcement to encourage more victims to come forward.

Court documents in the Hernandez case offer a glimpse of the kinds of tactics businesses are accused of employing and of the lengths some immigrants will go to in order to secure legal status.

Ms. Hernandez, who worked out of her apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, promised her clients permanent residence or citizenship in eight months and charged up to $15,000 per person, prosecutors said. Although changes in immigration status can often take several years, officials said, Ms. Hernandez told clients she had the political connections to speed their requests.

After eight months, however, she had delivered none of the legal documentation she promised, prosecutors said. When clients confronted her, she threatened to tell the authorities that they were illegal immigrants, officials said. Her lawyer would not comment on the case, and calls to Ms. Hernandezs home phone went unanswered.

One client, a 29-year-old taxi driver from Ecuador, said in an interview that he met Ms. Hernandez when she was a passenger in his cab. 'She asked me if I have a drivers license and immediately began to promise helping me with all kinds of documents,' said the man, who insisted on anonymity because he feared retribution from Ms. Hernandez. 'I gave her all the money I earned in nine months of work.'

After he paid an initial fee of $5,000, the man said, Ms. Hernandez told him he needed to bring other people into the arrangement because she could process the applications only in groups of 10. He said he invited relatives and friends, who provided her copies of their tax returns, passports, credit card and bank statements, birth certificates and even family photographs.

To help build their trust, Ms. Hernandez told each client she had scheduled them an appointment with immigration authorities, but the appointments turned out to be false, according to officials and court documents.

Mr. Cuomos office has sued Ms. Hernandez, seeking to bar her from continuing her business and to win restitution for her clients.