Preying in the shadows
They posed as lawyers, scammed thousands in cash from immigrants, and robbed them of their hope to stay in the U.S. They got away with it for years.
Edwin Obispo had just wired more than half his pay to his children back in Honduras, as he did every week at the same corner store in Norristown. Only this time, as he walked home, someone was trailing him.
When he turned to look, a man smashed a brick into his head. The attacker and another man punched and kicked him to near death, then stole his wallet with $120.
As he lay in the hospital, fearing deportation, he vowed that if he survived, he would pursue U.S. citizenship.
A decade earlier, Obispo had fled his country to escape gang violence, street crime, and poverty so severe people went without food. He slipped across the Mexico-U.S. border and made his way to Philadelphia, where he got a job rehabbing houses.
“I don’t want to live in the shadows like you do when you’re an illegal immigrant,” said Obispo, now 48.
He turned to Ana Molina, a fixture in the region’s Spanish-speaking community whose largely word-of-mouth, cash-only immigration services business had occupied a storefront on Castor Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia since 2001.
At their first meeting in early 2013, Obispo instantly trusted the Peruvian-born Molina. A U.S. citizen since 1987, she assured him she could help him navigate the labyrinth of immigration laws that intimidated him. She introduced herself as “a great professional lawyer,” he recalled.
Turned out, she wasn’t a lawyer. And she would go on to steal thousands of dollars from Obispo and others like him.
At a time when undocumented workers are increasingly terrified they will be deported, their desperation to stay here legally has fueled an already burgeoning industry of fraudulent immigration services providers.
Complaints against them in Pennsylvania skyrocketed last year, jumping to 129 from 22 in 2018, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Even so, this type of crime is grossly underreported, experts say.
“The fraud is so voluminous and the resources are so limited that the government cannot deal with it effectively,” said Don Crocetti, former director of the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (FDNS) within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The most common scams involve immigrants, already here legally, who prey on others who so badly want a path to citizenship. They either lie and say they’re lawyers or mislead immigrants from Latin American countries by advertising as a “notario,” which in those countries means a trained legal professional, as opposed to a “notary” in the U.S., someone who merely authenticates signatures on documents.
Charging exorbitant fees, these operators often file no documents at all, or even worse, submit fraudulent immigration forms, which can trigger deportation orders.
“They are preying on the perfect victims,” said Jeff DeCristofaro, an immigration lawyer and executive director of the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice. “They’re undocumented, so they are already living in the shadows. They generally have limited resources. They go to people who promise them the world. When they realize they’ve been scammed, they don’t believe they can report the fraud because they think they themselves will get arrested or detained.”
“They go to people who promise them the world. When they realize they’ve been scammed, they don’t believe they can report the fraud because they think they themselves will get arrested or detained.”
At every government level, the fraud has gone unchecked for years, even after authorities have received multiple complaints against the same providers, The Inquirer has found.
In the case of the 56-year-old Molina, federal authorities failed to shut her down as the number of her victims climbed over a five-year period. Across the river in South Jersey, Luc Matthews, cofounder of African Hispanic Immigration Org. (AHIO), has evaded federal authorities despite years of fraud complaints to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and local police and prosecutors.
Matthews, a U.S. citizen born in East Africa, said in an interview he has done nothing wrong. He said that some immigrants don’t appreciate all his hard work.
“The same people you help, slap you,” he said.
With its immigrant population ballooning, Philadelphia enacted in 2014 one of the nation’s strictest protections. That law requires immigration service providers to register annually with the city, and to prominently display a poster-size disclaimer, in English and Spanish, stating they are not lawyers. Operators face steep fines if they don’t.
Dozens of storefronts dot the city, either openly advertising “immigration services” or secretly operating out of “multiservice” businesses that offer tax prep, money orders, and auto tags.
Yet not one business is currently registered. Nor has the city issued a single violation since the 2014 law passed, officials said.
An overburdened federal system and a lack of local enforcement have allowed Matthews and Molina to operate illegally in plain sight.
“They know that the odds of being prosecuted are pretty slim, so they take advantage of it,” Crocetti said.
It took almost two years for Obispo to realize Molina wasn’t a lawyer. By then, he had given her $5,750, half his annual earnings, with nothing to show for it.
“It’s really hard to make legal money to pay someone who is doing corrupt work,” Obispo said through a translator. “How does that happen? How can you allow someone to do immigrant work like that and take your money?
“She ruins the American dream.”
‘Good moral character’
The way Luc Matthews tells it, he fled a civil war in Burundi at age 22 in 1996, and landed in Philadelphia through a church program that led to asylum and citizenship.
“In this country, everybody can make it,” he said in an interview. “It’s heaven on earth only if people see the wonder of this country. … You can come and start selling pizza and become a millionaire if you do a really good job.”
Matthews launched AHIO, a nonprofit immigration services business in South Jersey. He then applied to become an “accredited representative,” a nonlawyer who is authorized by the U.S. government to assist immigrants in legal matters and represent them in immigration proceedings.
To meet qualifications, Matthews had to prove he was trained in immigration law and worked for a tax-exempt immigration services business that charged nominal fees. He also had to provide reference letters and attest to his “good moral character.”
At the time, federal rules did not require applicants to divulge any criminal history. That loophole worked in Matthews’ favor.
When Matthews, then 36, applied in 2010, he had a rap sheet for identity theft, credit card fraud, and forgery in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, court and police records show.
In November 2008, Matthews was convicted of forging two blank checks he stole from a neighbor, making one out to himself for $280 and another to Philadelphia Traffic Court for $177.
The following month, he was convicted of stealing a license plate at Ardmore Nissan, where he worked as a salesman. He had slapped it on his purple Pontiac Firebird, then racked up traffic and parking tickets.
That same December day, a Burlington County Township detective interviewed Matthews for allegedly stealing a credit card from a customer at Burlington Volkswagen and using it to pay his car insurance.
In August 2010, Matthews was on probation when he received a letter from the Justice Department’s Frederick D. Hess, of its immigration accreditation board and a former director in the agency’s criminal division.
“We are satisfied that the proposed representative,” Hess wrote, “is a person of good moral character.” With that, Matthews was authorized to provide legal services through AHIO in Pennsauken. (Hess declined to comment.)
That meant the names of Matthews and AHIO would appear on an official roster of federally approved immigration service providers, which reassured customers of their legitimacy.
Derek DeCosmo, a Camden immigration lawyer who complained in 2014 to authorities about Matthews and AHIO, said: “The government is unintentionally aiding these bad organizations.”
Around the same time, Kerry Hartington, another immigration lawyer in South Jersey, had heard enough to complain about Matthews to the Camden County prosecutor and to David Caudill, in the fraud detection unit at USCIS. Camden County prosecutors charged Matthews with theft by deception for allegedly pocketing more than $6,000 for “legal services he did not provide.” Although the victim provided police with a taped statement and receipts, the case remains open.
By then, the Justice Department had terminated Matthews’ accreditation. A DOJ spokesperson declined to say why.
Still, Matthews continued to take on new customers. He handed out business cards describing himself as an “immigration attorney” and a member of the “American Bar Association,” spelled with two e’s.
And although Matthews was no longer accredited, AHIO would remain on the government’s list of organizations authorized to provide legal immigration services for another three years.
Abel Enoc Mejia had no idea Matthews was operating illegally.
Born in Olancho, Honduras, Mejia was 16 when he left after gang members killed two of his uncles. “When you live in a developing country, there’s so much violence and there’s a feeling that you’re obligated to join a gang or risk your life,” he said.
He waded across the Rio Grande River near Roma, Texas, on June 11, 2004, and encountered immigration officers who arrested him.
The teen was told he’d have to appear in court at a removal hearing, then released. Mejia gave immigration officials an address of where he was headed in South Jersey, but without an apartment number, his hearing notice was returned to sender.
When Mejia didn’t appear at a Sept. 22, 2004, hearing, an immigration judge in Texas signed an order to deport him.
For the next 10 years, Mejia lived in Lindenwold, N.J., painting Dumpsters. He earned $22,000 a year and paid nearly $2,250 annually in taxes. He married and had two children, now 11 and 5, citizens by birth.
In 2014, Mejia went to see Matthews at AHIO and gave him $1,500 to start. He ended up paying Matthews an additional $3,000.
It was Matthews’ idea, Mejia said, to lie to authorities. He persuaded Mejia to submit a notarized statement to Immigration Court saying that “two men tall and strong” had viciously attacked him, putting him in the hospital, two days before the hearing.
AHIO included a fake medical bill with the Cooper University Hospital logo that listed $11,456.92 for “Medical Services For Cooper Hospital Emergeny Trauma Center,” with emergency misspelled. The treatment date on the invoice was May 18, 2004 — 24 days before Mejia entered the U.S.
“He made me give consent to say that I had been assaulted, jumped,” Mejia said. He had asked Matthews, “What if people ask me if that was true?”
“Don’t worry. Don’t worry. Nothing is going to happen,” he said Matthews told him.
Because Matthews was no longer accredited, AHIO filed the motion in March 2014, using the name and signature of an active accredited representative. That AHIO representative, who is no longer accredited, declined to comment.
In an interview at his townhome in the Bustleton section of Northeast Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife and three children, Matthews denied ever filing fraudulent paperwork. “No. Absolutely not. …. People will lie to you. They will lie to the judge.”
The judge didn’t address the legitimacy of the attack or the phony medical record, but dismissed Mejia’s motion on a technicality.
If the motion had been submitted correctly with valid arguments, Mejia would have had a shot at citizenship, said lawyer DeCosmo.
“His removal process started when he was a kid and knew nothing about the heavy burdens our immigration system places on an individual to preserve their rights,” DeCosmo said. “Despite this, he had a real opportunity to rectify his status and his immigration issues in 2014 and that opportunity was blown and made worse by a phony nonprofit.”
Mejia could be deported at any time. But he still holds out hope.
“Now,” he said, “I want to fight to clear my case for my kids.”
‘What if they murder me?’
A year after Mejia went to Matthews, Isabel Vasquez-Juarez paid Matthews to help get her husband a green card.
Born in Oregon to migrant farmers, she moved back to Mexico at age 9. She worked the fields all day, harvesting corn, and lived with her family of seven in a wooden shack with no bathroom or beds. She married her childhood sweetheart, Javier Mijangos-Figueroa, and had a son. They wanted a different life for their son, and found a way to the U.S.
Mijangos-Figueroa, who was not a U.S. citizen like his wife, snuck across the border and ended up picking blueberries in Hammonton, Atlantic County, before eventually landing a $15.50-an-hour landscaping job.
After the couple gave Matthews his $2,000 fee, he spun a plan.
He would get Mijangos-Figueroa a “U-visa,” a special four-year visa for certain crime victims who help law enforcement investigate the case. But first, the couple said, Matthews, who also goes by Luc Fikiri Murefu, told Mijangos-Figueroa he would have to go to a high-crime area and hang around until he got assaulted.
“He told me that he knew a doctor who could get me fixed up,” Mijangos-Figueroa said. “He said he could get medical and police reports.”
“What if they murder me?” Mijangos-Figueroa asked. The couple wanted no part of it.
Asked if he had ever advised anyone to get beaten up to try to obtain a visa, Matthews replied: “Absolutely not. That would be crazy.”
The couple ended up going to Hartington, the immigration attorney in South Jersey.
As soon as Hartington heard Matthews’ name, she told herself, not again.
On Aug. 22, 2017, she emailed Caudill, the antifraud supervisor at USCIS.
“I am sorry to hear Luc is back,” Caudill replied. “I hope that this event is relatively isolated and that Mr. Matthews is not wrecking the lives of so many innocent families.” Then Caudill, who had transferred to another location, sent Hartington’s complaint to a supervisor in his old office.
Matthews, who is 45, says he never defrauded anyone, casting himself as a humanitarian. “It’s the most difficult task to help people,” he said. “Look at what it did to Jesus.”
Matthews explained that some of his customers grew angry with him because he left the country in summer 2018 to run for president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Matthews, who referred to himself as “Prince Luc Fikiri” and “Grand Prince of the village Luvingi,” ran on an anticorruption platform.
But none of Matthews’ names was on the official list of all 21 presidential candidates.
In fact, starting in August 2018, Matthews was locked up in New Jersey for 45 days in the Monmouth County jail, charged with stealing $500 from an immigrant and the unauthorized practice of law. He later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was fined $130.50. A month later, he was back promoting AHIO’s immigration services.
From prison to preying
For years, Ana Molina offered a smorgasbord of services such as tax prep, money transfers, no fault divorces, and immigration services.
But she also had a secret business: money laundering. Until she was caught, Molina sent about $400,000 in illegal drug-trafficking proceeds to Colombia and the Dominican Republic. In 2007, she pleaded guilty and was sentenced to serve 30 months in prison.
While on supervised release, she petitioned the court to allow her to continue to do immigration services as long as she didn’t handle money transfers. Molina argued that “it would be an extreme financial hardship” if she couldn’t run “Ana Molina & Associates” out of her Castor Avenue office, where her services were “known in the community.”
Philadelphia police would come to know the business address well. Officers have been called to Molina’s office more than 20 times between 2014 and 2019 for such complaints as theft, embezzlement, terroristic threats, minor disturbances, disorderly crowd, and twice, “person with a gun,” police records show.
In August 2010, a U.S. District Court judge granted Molina’s request to continue to provide immigration services at the same storefront.
When Edwin Obispo went to see Molina in 2013, he had a good chance of acquiring legal status. As a victim of a brutal attack and robbery, he qualified for a U-visa. Molina told him she would work with the Norristown Police Department to help him obtain the visa, according to Obispo.
Instead, she dodged his calls for weeks. Then he got a letter, written in English, from a Norristown detective, saying it was “imperative” that Obispo contact him as soon as possible so he could continue the investigation. If he didn’t hear from Obispo within five days, he would assume that Obispo didn’t want to pursue the case, according to the Jan. 22, 2013, letter.
Obispo, who can’t read English, sent the letter to Molina. When she finally returned his calls, Molina told him she had bad news: Norristown police had closed his case and, as a result, a U-visa was no longer viable, he said.
There was another option, Molina told him. She could get Obispo a green card because his wife was a U.S. citizen. But she would need an additional $3,000, on top of the $2,000 he had already paid her. And Obispo’s wife would have to go to a therapist, handpicked by Molina, for a psychological evaluation to prove that she would suffer extreme “hardship” if he couldn’t stay in the country, he said.
Obispo grew suspicious of Molina. He went to her office and asked for his paperwork, but she demanded $200 first, he said. “I gave it to her because I felt vulnerable and wanted to end the whole thing,” he said.
In 2016, Obispo told what happened to local immigration lawyer Christopher Casazza, who reported Molina to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office for the crime of unauthorized practice of law. No charges resulted.
Casazza also wrote to the Norristown Police Department, explaining his client had wanted to cooperate with the police investigation into the assault. On Sept. 8, 2016, Police Chief Mark Talbot signed the certification Casazza needed to apply for a U-visa for Obispo.
Obispo is still awaiting a decision.
Finally on the trail
Unlike immigrants without legal status, Sandra Enchautegui, a U.S. citizen who works as a supervisor at a cleaning company, was not afraid to take on Molina.
On Oct. 3, 2014, she filed a report with the Philadelphia Police Department, accusing Molina of theft. Northeast detectives investigated the case, but no charges resulted.
She then filed a lawsuit against Molina in Philadelphia Municipal Court, claiming that she gave Molina $1,110 to prevent a family friend from being deported to Mexico. But later that night, she learned that her friend had already been deported. Molina refused to refund the money.
“I kept calling her and calling her because I wanted my money back. She probably thought I was illegal,” Enchautegui said through an interpreter during an interview at her home in Warminster. “I felt really frustrated and upset.”
At a court hearing, she told the judge that Molina fooled her into thinking she was a lawyer — a claim Molina denied. The judge asked Molina how she could possibly handle immigration cases if she wasn’t a lawyer.
Molina explained that she farmed out any legal work and court appearances to an accredited representative named Janet Hinshaw-Thomas, according to the court transcript.
In a recent interview, Hinshaw-Thomas, who runs a nonprofit called PRIME Ecumenical Commitment to Refugees, with offices in Lansdowne and Lancaster, said she met Molina years ago. They forged a kind of partnership.
Molina got clients in the door, then enlisted Hinshaw-Thomas to make court appearances for about $200 a case.
“I don’t work for her. She refers cases to us — for those who go to court,” Hinshaw-Thomas said. She said she “warned [Molina] over and over” not to practice law.
On the morning of March 13, 2019, federal investigators showed up at Molina’s office with a 23-page search warrant.
The document laid out bread crumbs, left by Molina beginning in 2014, that investigators would later follow to her doorstep after concluding that “Molina is an attorney-impostor” who should be stopped.
First, a former Molina customer reported her to the IRS and local police after discovering that she had stolen his financial records. A year later, in 2015, a lawyer alerted Homeland Security investigators that an immigrant paid Molina $900 to represent him in court and felt duped when Hinshaw-Thomas, who doesn’t speak Spanish, showed up instead. Two years later, a fraud officer with USCIS figured out that Molina, using the stolen tax and bank records of her former customer, had forged his signature on immigration forms.
By the time federal investigators finished their search, they had carted off 19 boxes of documents and three computers.
Undeterred, Molina took on new customers. One was Dainean Brown Menye, a hairdresser, who paid $500 to get legal status for her husband. Disgruntled, the couple went to her office to get their money back, but Molina summoned two of her sons, one of whom threatened them with a gun, according to a police report and civil court records. Meyne took Molina to small claims court and won a judgment of $500. Menye is still out the money.
Shirking the law
The 2014 Philadelphia law is designed to protect people like Menye. Molina was required to display a sign listing fees for all services and provide customers with contracts that detailed her services and the cost. Unsatisfied customers have three days to cancel the contract and Molina was obligated to return money and paperwork.
Molina was also required to prove she purchased a $50,000 surety bond to cover damages won by people who sued her.
But she did not. Nor has any of Philadelphia’s dozens of immigration services providers, according to city officials.
Amy Eusebio, director of the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, said the city is developing “an action plan” to educate immigrants and businesses about the law.
As for Molina, she pleaded guilty last month to mail fraud and identity theft, admitting she deceived at least seven immigrants. She faces a minimum of two years in prison and must pay $11,000 in restitution to her victims. She is scheduled to be sentenced April 30.
And Luc Matthews? He said he now earns a living shipping cars from Philadelphia to the Congo and is no longer in the immigration services business.
But AHIO’s Facebook page says otherwise.
In a promotional video posted May 24, 2019, Matthews stands outside AHIO on Westfield Avenue and points with pride to the immigration services listed in red letters on the storefront window.
Dressed in a chic black business overcoat and crisp white shirt, Matthews unlocks the front door and invites viewers inside, where he pitches his services and opens a file drawer stuffed with cases.
The Justice Department, however, took away his accreditation six years ago, and in 2017 added rules to better police the ranks of accredited immigration representatives. Applicants must disclose any background of dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation, even if the accusation did not result in an arrest, and those found guilty of a “serious crime” are automatically disqualified.
Matthews insisted in an interview that he’s still an accredited representative. “I’m accredited. Absolutely. And I have my papers,” he said, pulling out his 2010 approval letter from the Justice Department.
“I have full accreditation. I can go to any state, any court and represent people.”
Staff writers Jesenia De Moya Correa and Claudia Vargas contributed to this article.
The Inquirer’s investigative reporting is supported in part by The Lenfest Institute’s Investigative News Fund. Editorial content is created independently of the Fund’s donors. A listing of Lenfest Institute donors can be found at lenfestinstitute.org. Gifts to support the Investigative News Fund can be made at www.inquirer.com/donate.