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Oct 8, 2019 2:11 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Immigration Service Fraud In The Hamptons

Oct 8, 2019 3:11 PM

After an eight month long investigation by Southampton Town Police detectives, Maria Sanchez-Dios, 39, of Southampton, was arrested at police headquarters on fraud charges on October 1.

Ms. Sanchez-Dios was involved in a scheme to defraud Latinos seeking help with immigration services, police charged. Her employer, Immigration Legal Services of Long Island, Inc. contacted police after they realized what had been going on, according to police.

Police said Ms. Sanchez-Dios would charge victims non-existent governmental fees and wouldn’t provide additional legal services that they believed would be provided after payment.

Ms. Sanchez-Dios was charged with immigration assistance services fraud, scheme to defraud, and grand larceny — all felonies. She was held overnight for arraignment at Southampton Town Justice Court.

This type of crime is not uncommon in the realm of immigration, according to local sources working with the immigrant populations on the East End.

“The level of exploitation against our Latino population out here, especially the more vulnerable members, is horrendous,” said Minerva Perez, executive director of Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, or OLA. “This is happening everywhere, constantly, and what are we doing about it? The things we need to see in place are better support and protection from all the levels that protect everyone else. We need all of our systems working together to prevent exploitation, and there's so much that can be done. It’s the reason OLA got started in 2002, because of exploitation.”

Ms. Perez has some advice for those in the beginning stages of seeking legal help, specifically for immigration services.

“Whatever paid service you’re looking into, you should be looking them up to see what kind of business they are,” Ms. Perez said. “Ask all the hard questions, get names, take pictures of business cards, and keep your own records. See if there's any reports against them and look at any complaints. Ask about processes, realistic expectations, fee structures, and try to speak to past clients. It's also good for them to reach out to the Better Business Bureau [BBB], specifically those who oversee legal offices and see what type of success they have had, which is all on a case-by-case basis, of course.

“Often times, people are going to these services because they are much cheaper, because there are no other options, but it shouldn't lead to this exploitation,” she continued. “We should be able to reach out to our legislators and say, ‘Hey, I don't think this organization is doing the right thing,’ and if anyone has any concerns of that sort they can definitely reach out to OLA. We can make sure they are reputable organizations.”

Susan Menu, a longtime East Hampton resident and attorney, has been practicing law for the past 28 years locally.

“A lot of lawyers out here are good and respectable, but it's always best to get a recommendation rather than pull something from a phone book or online — try and get a referral,” she suggested.

Ms. Menu said she believes immigration legal service professionals who prey on immigrants looking for legalization should face severe consequences.

“They [the clients] have everything riding on good representation,” she said. “They [immigration lawyers] should be disbarred in my opinion, to prey on those who don't have the expertise to know what they're paying for.”

“This happens a lot when people don’t have access to law enforcement,” said Andrew Strong, a human rights attorney who works for OLA. Mr. Strong has been practicing on the East End since 2013.

“The people that get exploited often fear law enforcement, and typically are victims of wage theft and similar crimes,” he said. “The employer can then say something like ‘Take me to court,’ and because the person either doesn’t feel comfortable in a court setting, or feels that their status may be a sort of roadblock, and they don’t want to pursue it. It’s a really complicated area of the law. If you lose, the people are often sent out of the county.”

Mr. Strong agrees research is key when seeking any kind of legal aid. He recommends taking a look at the businesses’ track record, and overall record of success throughout the years.

“A major flag that people can look out for is dealing only in cash,” he said. “Whether it be rent in cash, or legal fees. That’s a huge sign that something may be wrong.”

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