Thousands of immigrants shouldn’t lose out on money they deserve

This morning the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) and the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) held a briefing to build awareness among immigrant communities for a restitution fund established by New York State. NYLAG is administering the fund.

The $2.2 million fund was created to provide restitution to former clients of two immigration services organizations, International Immigrants Foundation (IIF) and International Professional Association (IPA).  These New York City nonprofit organizations generated millions of dollars in revenue each year – and allegedly defrauded immigrants while engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.

Anyone who was a client of IIF or IPA, whether they feel they were defrauded or not, is eligible for restitution. And the process is simple and safe. Former IIF/IPA clients can go to www.nylag.org/IPA, or call 212-514-4265 for more information and assistance.

“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 October 23rd 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.

“The NYIC is proud to collaborate with NYLAG to spread the word about the Immigrant Restitution Fund, a critical initiative to provide financial relief to victims of fraud perpetrated by the International Immigrants Foundation and the International Professional Association. We urge immigrant victims to come forward and make a claim for compensation through the fund, which will allow them get out of debt and seek the real assistance they need. We applaud Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for the establishment of this fund and for providing support for immigrant victims of fraud,” said Steven Choi, Executive Director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “Too often we hear about vulnerable immigrants preyed upon by notarios and other unauthorized practitioners of law who charge outrageous fees with wrongful assurances of citizenship and residency. 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.”

In 2010 the Office of the New York State Attorney General (OAG) filed suit against IIF and IPA, alleging that the organizations defrauded immigrants with false promises of citizenship and residency, practiced law without a license, illegally charged exorbitant fees for services, and violated laws governing not-for-profit corporations.

In 2013, the State Review Court approved a settlement agreement between the OAG and the defendants; as a result, IIF and IPA closed. The settlement requires that the organizations’ remaining assets, following the sale of its property and the settlement of all claims, be used to provide restitution to former clients.

At Monday’s briefing several former clients of IIF/IPA (now clients of NYLAG) spoke movingly of their experiences.

Maria Mejia lived in San Pedro Sula, a Honduran city so steeped in gang violence that it is called the “murder capital of the world.” In 2005, a church in Brooklyn recruited her 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 US, 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 actions of International Immigrants Foundation and International Professional Association caused serious and sometimes irrevocable harm to immigrants – the loss of money, abandoned cases, risk of removal, and the breakup of families,” said Mr. Schulman. “The restitution fund will not repay them for their suffering, but it is a way to recognize what they have gone through — and to shine the light on the continuing travesty of immigration fraud.”

NYLAGCristina HermidaComment