The city’s director of immigration affairs said she will lead a new effort to protect immigrants from fraudsters, starting with a 2014 law that the city has so far failed to enforce.
“We know immigration-services fraud is prevalent and rampant and there are constant attacks on the immigration community,” said Amy Eusebio, director of the Office of Immigrant Affairs, whom Mayor Jim Kenney appointed four months ago. “We are going to make it a priority to take this on when it’s prime season for people to take advantage of immigrants.”
Eusebio’s pledge came in response to an Inquirer investigation that detailed how two immigration services providers posed as lawyers and charged Philadelphia-area immigrants exorbitant fees, robbing their opportunity to gain legal status.
The story disclosed that five years after the city enacted a law requiring business owners to register annually with Licenses and Inspections and prominently post signs, in English and Spanish, stating that they are not lawyers, not a single business is in compliance.
At the time, the antifraud law was among the most comprehensive and protective in the nation.
“We have one of the best municipal laws on the books,” Councilmember Helen Gym said. “There’s no reason we can’t get action right now…. We just got to get on it.”
For starters, Gym said, city officials should register known immigration services providers on the spot and make sure they are following the law. The law requires that they post disclaimers, display signs listing fees for all services, provide customers with written contracts that allow them to cancel within three days, and return money and paperwork. Business owners also must prove they’ve purchased a $50,000 surety bond, designed to cover damages and successful claims against them.
The Inquirer found that Ana Molina, a Peruvian native who ran a well-known, cash-only immigration services business in Northeast Philadelphia, preyed on immigrants desperate to get legal status. She charged them thousands of dollars for work she either didn’t do, or wasn’t legally allowed to do. Some victims told reporters she pretended to be a lawyer and strung them along.
When Gym read the article, she said she felt compelled to act.
“We know all the big shops," Gym said. “There have been none registered and so we can start pretty quickly there, getting on the registrations and demanding that they post the notices and so to me, it’s pretty straightforward. I think the article reminded people not just what wasn’t being done, but why it’s worth doing.”
City lawmakers say that enforcement of the 2014 law wasn’t meant to fall entirely on L&I, which has roughly 55 inspectors to enforce property maintenance, fire safety, zoning codes, and business compliance, and respond to more than 35,000 yearly complaints. From the start, city lawmakers recognized that the law posed enforcement challenges.
The law’s prohibition on business staffers charging customers for referrals to lawyers and promising them a good outcome, are onerous for L&I to enforce, said city spokesperson Lauren Cox.
In 2017, the city targeted an area around Fifth and Wyoming Streets in the Feltonville neighborhood to make business owners aware of the law and get them registered, Cox said.
Only one business did, then never renewed its registration.
While canvassing businesses in 2017, city staff repeatedly heard business owners “complain that the surety bond requirement was a major hurdle for small businesses,” Cox said.
A $50,000 surety bond for this type of business generally costs $1,000-a-year, but business operators can be denied if they have a bad credit score, a criminal record, a history of surety bond claims, or problems with their business license.
Cox said additional legislative action would be needed in City Council to tweak or remove the surety bond requirement.
But Councilmember Mark Squilla, who had supported the bill, said he wasn’t keen on that idea. “The problem is," he said, "if they don’t have it, what protections are there for the people who are using that service?”
At least two of Molina’s former customers sued her in small claims court in hopes of recouping their money. Both won judgments, but only one was able to get Molina to return her money. Molina, 56, who lives in Cherry Hill, pleaded guilty last month to mail fraud and identify theft in connection with her immigration services business. She faces a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in prison and must repay her victims.
During an interview last year, Molina said she was vaguely aware of the law but never got around to registering.
The Inquirer article showed how it took federal authorities years to bring criminal charges against Molina as complaints against her piled up and the number of victims mounted. Two victims told reporters that they had complained to immigration authorities but nothing happened for years.
It is rare for victims to come forward, and as a result, immigration services fraud is grossly underreported, although statistics show that complaints in Pennsylvania surged last year.
“Unless people report it, it’s really hard to know who is doing what,” said Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who approved the bill. “In the culture of Donald Trump, the undocumented folks don’t always tell you and they go to these places and people tell them what they want to hear, not the truth. They don’t want to report that they’ve been scammed.”
Last year, Philadelphia voters approved a measure to make the Office of Immigrant Affairs (OIA) a permanent city agency, which has a budget of $511,500. Kenney said undocumented immigrants can call the office to get guidance about their legal rights and report fraud, all without fear of deportation. The office’s leadership is committed "to combat these thieves who are stealing from people who are in a difficult position to begin with,” Kenney said Tuesday in a brief interview.
Eusebio said her plan is to educate businesses and immigrants about what is and is not legal. One key step is to teach immigrants that those who advertise as a “notario público” are not authorized to provide legal services, as they are in many Latin American countries. She said she aims to enlist state and local prosecutors, the city’s Department of Commerce, and L&I leaders to help bring businesses into compliance, levying fines and criminal charges if warranted.
“There are lots of folks with an interest in this and we need more of a coordinated effort,” she said. “We’re looking to find solutions.”