Minutes before 5 p.m. on a Friday, a dozen people stormed into the office of City Councilmember Daniel Dromm to complain that they had been scammed out of thousands of dollars by American Immigrant Federation (AIF) for bogus immigration services.
“It became glaringly clear that the problem was bigger than we thought,” said Dromm, who represents Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst, Corona, LeFrak City, Rego Park, and Woodside.
AIF, led by Stella Figueredo, was accused of charging exorbitant fees, giving misinformation, misfiling papers, and using non-lawyers improperly. Now, thousands of immigrants who were victims of the wide-reaching immigration scam will be able to recover some of their money, after the New York State Attorney General’s Office reached a settlement with AIF on April 14.
Under the agreement, AIF and its affiliates must stop all immigration services, shut down all of their operations, and pay $1.2 million in restitution to the victims. AIF, a group running as a nonprofit organization with over 20,000 clients, operated out of offices at 78-14 Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, among other locations. The Attorney General will accept complaints for inclusion in the AIF monetary settlement until July 30, 2010.
“Now that we are nearing that deadline,” said Dromm, chair of the City Council’s Immigration Committee, “we want to make sure people get their paper work in.”
That’s why Dromm along with Make the Road New York (MRNY) are offering a free legal workshop for victims of immigration services fraud. The workshop will be held at the MRNY headquarters on Sunday, July 18 at 92-10 Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Victims will be able to meet with lawyers and there will be Spanish speaking translators to make the process smoother.
“Every week someone walks into our office with a story,” said Amy Carroll, legal director at MRNY. “I think it is a widespread problem.”
Carlos Carrillo, 60, is among the victims who complained to Dromm and will get some of his money back. The naturalized U.S. Citizen said he paid $1,500 to AIF and a $100-a-month membership to help get his wife, who is from Honduras, her permanent residency. But instead, he said, AIF kept his money and didn’t finish the job. That’s when he began to gather the information of more than 40 fraud victims.
“I am a citizen,” said Carrillo, who was born in Colombia. “I was simply collaborating with the other people because they were scared they would be reported to immigration.”
Carroll explained that the Latino community many times mistakes a notary, or a “notario” in Spanish, for a lawyer.
“I think there is so much misinformation in the immigrant community,” Carroll said. “People will come to us because we are trusted in the community”
To report an immigration services fraud, call the New York State Attorney General’s hotline at 866-390-2992 or visit www.ag.ny.gov and click on “Consumer Frauds.”