LOS ANGELES (CN) - A Los Angeles area "immigration consultant" and her "business associate" were arrested Thursday and charged with bilking immigrants of as much as $24,000 at a time for filing fraudulent petitions for immigration relief, federal prosecutors said.
Lead defendant Claudia Arreola, 35, of El Monte, owns and operates California Immigration Services. She and her "business associate" Leticia Gutierrez, 35, of Pico Rivera, are charged in a six-count indictment returned Tuesday by a grand jury.
Arreola and Gutierrez are accused of running a notario
In Mexico and Central America, notarios
(notaries) can perform many of the responsibilities that only attorneys can do in the United States. Because it is easy to become a notary public in the United States, dozens or hundreds of shady operators have run notario
scams for decades, advertising themselves as notarios
, and charging stiff fees to practice immigration law without a license.
According to the indictment, the defendant submitted paperwork to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on behalf of six people who sought permanent residency based on legitimate marriages to U.S. citizens. But prosecutors said in a statement that "the applications filed by the defendants allegedly included fraudulent I-94 cards indicating that the immigrants, who originally came to the U.S. illegally, entered lawfully on visitors' visas."
The women quoted initial fees of $7,000, but charged their victims as much as $24,000 apiece, the U.S. Attorney's Office said in a statement. When some victims demanded refunds when they did not get their green cards, "the defendants allegedly threatened to contact authorities and have the aliens deported," prosecutors said in the statement.
If convicted of all charges, the women could be sentenced to up to 60 years in federal prison.
Arreola and Gutierrez were both sued by the California attorney general for similar offenses in 2003, prosecutors said. Both of them entered settlement agreements in which they promised not to do it again, but began running California Immigration Services in 2006, according to the U.S. attorney.