Attorney General Greg Abbott Halts Brazen Immigration Services Schemes In Brownsville And Mcallen
McAllen Attorney General Greg Abbott today dealt a blow to two large operations in the Rio Grande Valley that scammed immigrants throughout the region by engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.
Abbott filed separate lawsuits against Brownsville-based Uresti Immigration/Notary Services and a Weslaco business, Trmites Migratorios. Both lawsuits alleged the businesses deceived consumers by illegally providing services to immigrants wishing to apply for U.S. residency and other benefits, a violation of Texas deceptive trade practices laws.
"These two businesses unconscionably abused consumers who are immigrants, said Attorney General Abbott. They thumbed their noses at the law. Perhaps with civil and criminal charges against them, these and other scam artists around Texas can take a moment to reflect on just how serious we are about fighting these abuses.
Attorney General Abbott was joined by Cameron County District Attorney Yolanda DeLeon, Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra and the Special Crimes Unit of the Texas Department of Public Safety in investigating the two operations and pursuing criminal charges against Martha Uresti, owner of Uresti Immigration, and Ruth Thomas, one of the principals of Trmites Migratorios.
(Ruth Thomas, Martha Uresti)
Both businesses provided services that included consultations and the filling out and filing of documents for immigrants seeking to apply for benefits such as work permits and permanent residency. However, Texas law states that only licensed attorneys or nonprofit organizations authorized by the federal Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) can render such services.
The businesses generally charged consumers in excess of $1,000 and often considerably more. Several consumers reported that Uresti and Thomas either never filed the documents they were supposed to present to U.S. immigration officials on the clients’ behalf or, if documents were indeed submitted, that they were often improperly filled out jeopardizing clients’ eligibility to obtain benefits being sought.
Both Ruth Thomas and Martha Uresti are licensed notaries public. Texas law explicitly forbids notaries public from soliciting or accepting compensation to prepare forms or represent another person in immigration proceedings. Violations of this statute can be prosecuted criminally. If convicted, they could each face six months imprisonment. First time offenses are a Class A misdemeanor, and subsequent violations are third degree felonies.
The law was passed by the Texas Legislature in 2001, stemming from the abuses perpetrated by individuals who obtain notary public licenses with the specific intent to defraud. Scam artists have often exploited the mistranslation of the term notary public and the similarly-sounding Spanish term notario pblico. In Texas, a notary license simply entitles the bearer to officially witness the signing of documents, while in Latin America a notario denotes a highly experienced lawyer. Neither Ruth Thomas nor Uresti hold licenses to practice law in Texas.
Attorney General Abbott also warned consumers to be especially cautious with schemes stemming from people who are trying to exploit President George W. Bush’s recent unveiling of immigration proposals.
In the past, even the mere mention of proposed changes to federal immigration law have brought with them a surge in misinformation and deception perpetrated by scam artists. These are attempts to defraud the public by distorting facts to consumers seeking benefits for themselves or immigrant family members, or businesses with immigrant employees.
As immigration policy is given increased national attention in the months to come, consumers should be aware of those who use this heightened public interest as a means to deceive, said Attorney General Abbott. Developing and enforcing immigration laws is the exclusive domain of the federal government. However, in Texas, I vow to continue enforcing our state consumer protection laws to go after those who seek to exploit the immigrant community.
In November 2003 Abbott worked with federal authorities in North Texas to bring criminal charges against Maria Elena Garza, who defrauded hundreds of immigrants near the Dallas area by posing as an immigration officer.
To apply for immigration benefits, or to obtain a list of immigration attorneys and nonprofit organizations that can legitimately assist immigrants, consumers should contact their local offices of the United States Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) or go online at www.uscis.gov.
Consumers who believe that they have been the victims of a scam related to immigration services should contact the Attorney General’s office at 1-800-252-8011.