Maricela Haro has been indicted for finding vulnerable immigrants and scamming them out of thousands of dollars.
Knowing how strongly her victims wanted to become legal residents, she falsely claimed that she was an immigration attorney, and that her brother was a high-level U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services official who would sign off on any legal residency application. She offered to meet potential clients at a restaurant, rather than at her supposed downtown office, so she wouldn’t have to charge a $200 “consultation fee”. Then she promised them she could guarantee permanent residency status within a year, no matter their situation.

After she charged $2,500 as part of the “application fee,” she went on to grow personally close with her victims. She invited them to her house for parties, including her daughter’s quinceañera – and even asked one of them to pick up her children from school. The victims say they grew to trust Haro and her family after spending time together.

But Haro didn’t deliver on her promises. After taking application fees, she told them to wait for a letter in the mail – sometimes for over a year – and tried to assuage her victims when the letter didn’t arrive. After a while, she just stopped answering the phone.

Working with Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia and his staff, victims filed complaints at the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission and the Chicago Police Department. Those complaints led to Haro’s October arrest. She has since been indicted on “theft of property obtained by deception” for allegedly scamming 12 people, according to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. She is being held at the Cook County Jail until a Nov. 26 hearing and was unavailable to comment for this story.

Haro’s case provides a rare glimpse into a serious problem of immigration fraud that continues to plague immigrant communities. Many victims are afraid to lodge complaints—they are undocumented and not familiar with the legal system, said Laura Lichter, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, a group of attorneys who practice and teach immigration law.

“Victims are inherently vulnerable, and scammers count on that,” Lichter said. “Victims are not willing to come forward and report it. [Immigrants] don’t feel safe reporting it; they fear that, if they report it, they will get in trouble.”

Commissioner Garcia said he’s seen the problem only get worse over the years, and he doesn’t expect it to go away any time soon. “I’m especially afraid that if the immigration reform happens,” he said, “there’s going to be an explosion of deceptive practices by shady characters waiting to rip people off.”

Ivan Perez said he never thought he would fall victim to a scammer. He met Haro through a friend in 2011. She told him she could help him and his wife become legal permanent residents – at the price of $2,500 each – and promised to get him a work authorization within a few months. She called later to ask for another $1,500 for each case to cover a supposed penalty for entering the country illegally, Perez confided.

Perez waited for about nine months before checking up on Haro. She never answered when he called to check on the status of his application. Eventually, he figured out what had happened – and that he and his wife weren’t the sole victims. At a meeting organized by Garcia’s staff, he met more than 20 other victims. Some of them are still afraid to publicly come out to tell their stories, he said.

Perez said he had sacrificed time with his family to save money – working two jobs and sleeping in short spurts – ever since he and his wife immigrated from the state of Michoacan, Mexico, more than a decade ago. “I feel bad. I feel dumb,” Perez said. “My friends make fun of me. They ask me, ‘How did you believe that she was a lawyer?’”

“I went to the police because she already stole money from me,” he added. “I don’t want that to happen to other people. I want her to pay for what she deserves.”

By María Inés Zamudio