In 2010, the New York State Attorney General’s Office filed suit against two large immigration services agencies, accusing them of providing fraudulent legal services to thousands of immigrants. The two organizations have been shut down pending the outcome of the suit, and the Attorney General recommended that the State appoint NYLAG via its Immigrant Protection Unit (IPU) as the Receiver of their former caseloads, amounting to over 6,000 cases. Over the past year, IPU has made great progress in reviewing and determining priorities of action for these cases.

The Attorney General’s lawsuit alleges that the two agencies misrepresented their ability to produce results in many of the immigration cases they handled. According to the suit, immigrants may have been lured through advertisements to purchase expensive “memberships” that promised special privileges and legal services. If true, this would be a violation of New York State law, which prohibits nonprofit immigration services providers from charging more than a nominal fee. Clients also reportedly received documents such as an “International Citizen Photo Identification Card,” which featured a nondescript seal but offered no official benefits.

If the allegations are accurate, victims could suffer consequences even more severe than losing large sums of money. Undocumented immigrants, believing that they were going through the proper procedures to legitimize their status, may have risked exposure and possible deportation by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. The suit also alleges that immigrants might have lost their opportunity to naturalize because the accused agencies mishandled their paperwork.

As part of the agreement with the Attorney General, NYLAG is also conducting a fiscal review of the closed agencies, but its primary responsibility is to review their caseloads. IPU staff must report to the Court on which cases have been properly closed and which require follow up. Because of the sheer volume of urgent cases, IPU is unable to represent every former client. When a case needs immediate attention, IPU contacts the client and provides a list of free legal services agencies that may be able to help.

IPU does provide direct representation for the most compelling cases. One such client is “Rosaria,” a Brazilian national who came to the United States 18 years ago with her husband and two young daughters. The couple soon divorced and Rosaria raised her children as a single working mom. Since arriving in the US, she has worked continuously as a medical technician and paid taxes. She also dutifully paid membership fees to one of the accused immigration services agencies. One day, a representative from the agency allegedly contacted her and said that for a “nominal fee” of $8,000, he could file a Green Card application on her behalf. Unfortunately, it was never made clear to her that she was, in fact, ineligible for a Green Card because she did not have lawful status in the country. The filing brought her undocumented status to the attention of immigration officials who began removal procedures. NYLAG has since intervened on her behalf and IPU Director Irina Matiychenko is optimistic about the case. “Rosaria is an exemplary member of the community who is active in her church and volunteers for several local organizations.”

IPU has helped fill these kinds of enormous service gaps before. In 2008, when a depleted budget forced the New York Association for New Americans to close its doors, NYLAG accepted the agency’s nearly 5,000 open cases and successfully represented the majority within two years. IPU also conducts regular outreach to immigrant communities to educate them about their options and warn them about fraudulent services. “Because we have worked in the community for so long, we are in a good position to help inform people about these dangers,” said Ms. Matiychenko. “Immigrants are always desperate to adjust their status, and there are many people willing to take advantage of that.”