LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles-area immigration consultant and one of her employees were arrested Thursday morning after being indicted on charges they alleged filed fraudulent "green card" applications on behalf of immigrants who were married to U.S. citizens, some of whom paid more than $20,000 for their services.
Claudia Arreola, 35, of El Monte, who owns California Immigration Services (CIS), and her business associate, Leticia Gutierrez, 35, Pico Rivera, were taken into custody by special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). The two women were charged in a six-count indictment returned Tuesday by a federal grand jury.
"Fraud scams run by so-called notarios threaten the integrity of the immigration process and offer false hope to desperate people," said United States Attorney André Birotte Jr. "The two women in this case victimized immigrants for years by giving the false impression that they could fix immigration problems."
According to the indictment, the defendants submitted paperwork to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on behalf of six foreign nationals who were seeking to obtain "green cards" – permanent resident status – based on legitimate marriages to U.S. citizens. The applications filed by the defendants allegedly included fraudulent I-94 cards indicating that the immigrants, who originally came to the U.S. illegally, entered lawfully on visitors' visas.
The immigrant victims were originally quoted fees of approximately $7,000, but the defendants ultimately charged them as much as $24,000. To pay the debt, some of the couples borrowed against their credit cards or obtained loans from family and friends. Subsequently, investigators say when several of the foreign nationals sought refunds after they failed to receive "green cards," the defendants allegedly threatened to contact authorities and have the aliens deported.
"Tragically, as is often true in such scams, at least some of the victims in this case could have obtained green cards legally," said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge for HSI Los Angeles. "Instead, they placed their trust and, in many cases, their life savings in the hands of individuals who were focused on enriching themselves, rather than on helping hopeful immigrants realize the American dream."
Investigators say the similarity between the name and acronym for Arreola's consulting business and USCIS, the Department of Homeland Security agency that adjudicates applications for immigration benefits, was no coincidence. Evidence developed during the investigation showed that money orders and cashier's checks made out to USCIS had been deposited in bank accounts controlled by defendants.
The probe targeting Arreola's CIS began in 2011 after HSI received leads from USCIS's Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) directorate involving several suspicious benefit applications. While only six instances of fraud are charged in the case indictment, authorities believe the scheme is responsible for dozens of fraudulent benefit applications.
"Arreola victimized immigrants for personal gain by pretending to be associated with USCIS," said USCIS FDNS Western Regional Assistant Director Ken Takeda. "We are committed to upholding the integrity of our immigration system by combatting these deceptive practices. USCIS strongly encourages the public to seek legal advice or representation from attorneys or accredited representatives."
Arreola and Gutierrez are expected to be arraigned on the indictment Thursday afternoon in federal court. If convicted, both defendants face a statutory maximum penalty of 60 years in federal prison.
In 2003, the Attorney General of the State of California filed suit against Arreola and Gutierrez, among others, alleging the defendants had engaged in an illegal scheme to provide immigration services in violation of California law. Both Arreola and Gutierrez entered into settlement agreements in which they promised not to engage in illegal immigration consulting services in violation of California law, specifically agreeing not to promise certain benefits or results in immigration cases. In 2006, the defendants began operating California Immigration Services and engaging in the conduct alleged in the indictment.
This case is part of an ongoing, nationwide effort by the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to target unscrupulous immigration practitioners and combat the unauthorized practice of immigration law. The initiative relies on federal, state and local resources to combat the widespread problem of unauthorized practice of immigration law. Other partners involved in the Los Angeles effort include the Federal Trade Commission, the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs, the State Bar of California, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office, and the Attorney General's Office of the State of California. For more information on the initiative, please visit http://www.uscis.gov/news/national-initiative-combat-immigration-services-scams.
HSI and USCIS believe there are additional victims in this case who have not yet been identified. The Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs has a toll-free number that victims can call to get information or seek assistance: 1-800-593-8222.