Notarios Sentenced to Prison for Immigration Fraud

Yesterday, the Department of Justice confirmed via a press release that three Missourians had been sentenced to prison terms for their role in defrauding legal immigrants in the U.S.  Thomas Laurence was sentenced to 130 months in prison; Thomas Strawbridge was sentenced to 82 months; Elizabeth Meredith was sentenced to 366 days after all three pled guilty to mail and wire fraud charges.  The defendants were also required to pay $613,969 in restitution to their victims.

In February 2012, Thomas Laurence, Thomas Strawbridge and Elizabeth Meredith were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy to defraud customers seeking assistance on immigration-related issues.  Thomas Strawbridge founded the company Immigration Forms and Publications (IFP) and hired Thomas Laurence and Elizabeth Meredith to manage its operations.

 

The three allegedly led customers to believe that their company was affiliated with the government by calling each other “agents” or “immigration agent” in conversations with customers.  In addition to mail and wire fraud charges, other charges of criminal activity included the following alleged conduct:

  • Determining for customers which immigration forms they needed, despite not have any expertise in immigration;
  • Promising to provide assistance in completing immigration forms but failing to do so;
  • Making false, material statements leading customers to believe their organization handled overflow calls from USCIS;
  • Falsely indicating the fees paid by customers would apply towards government filing fees; and,
  • Charging customers for freely available immigration forms an amount equal to the government filing fee for the same form.

Reports of indictments and sentencing by the Department of Justice against immigration scammers are rare, but hopefully will send a strong message to the many fraudsters out there.

USCIS Tackles Notario and Immigration Scammers

With the onset of earnest immigration reform discussions (and legislation), the federal government appears genuinely interested in targeting immigration fraudsters.  For this, I commend our government.

In fact, last week, USCIS updated its website to provide a full list of all territories and states in the U.S. and how the public can go about reporting immigration fraud.

However, this may not be enough.  The reality is that immigration notarios are moving online in addition to brick and mortar shops.  In conducting my research for this article, one of the Google ads included a link to a website offering marriage-based immigration packages.  I visited the website to investigate and it led me to believe the organization was engaging in unlawful immigration practice.  Here were some of the tell-tale signs:

  • No licensed attorney was listed on the website.
  • The “About Us” and “Contact Us” web pages did not have any physical location or details about the organization.  Only an 800 phone number is available.
  • The website provides easy mechanisms to make a payment via credit card and PayPal with little information about what services they actually do provide.
  • The website explains an “expert Immigration Agent” will assist and a “department supervisor” will review the documents before filing.
  • They still use the term “INS” even though the Immigration and Naturalization Service was disbanded in 2003 and replaced with USCIS, ICE and CBP.

The website sure sounds eerily familiar to the case above, where the operators were charged, indicted and convicted.

Helping foreign nationals select which forms to complete and what to input in each field actually does constitute the practice of immigration law.  This is why the federal government has indicated that the only individuals who are allowed to practice immigration law are licensed attorneys and Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) accredited individuals.  The data on each of the forms and the filing of certain forms constitute affirmative attestations to the federal government.  When filed incorrectly with the wrong type of assistance, it can result in serious negative consequences.

With immigration notarios infiltrating the internet, it will be even more important for foreign nationals to be on alert and to seek the right type of assistance.