More than two decades ago, Ricardo Velázquez immigrated to the US from Puebla, Mexico, since then, he has spent most of the time since working in kitchens while dreaming of gaining a visa that would let him visit his home town with his family.
Early this year, his former immigration attorney, Kofi Amankwaa, gave him the news he had long been waiting for: his travel application had been approved. The lawyer claimed Velázquez could freely visit Mexico with his family, embrace his parents and see his children interact with their grandparents in person rather than through a screen.
Or so Velázquez thought.
On the return leg of a trip that otherwise exceeded expectations, things quickly soured as he went through customs at JFK airport in New York City. Agents detained him, led him away as his family watched in dismay, and ignored him as he pleaded: “My lawyer said I was OK to travel. Why are you doing this?”
Velázquez was held in custody for a month and deported before the truth emerged: Amankwaa had lied to him, along with more than 100 other purported clients, according to their supporters. And now those supporters are campaigning to get Velázquez as well as others who were deported back to the US in a legal battle that illustrates just one of the many uncertainties faced by immigrants.
As his New York-based immigration attorney, Brad Glassman, tells it, without him or his family ever realizing it, someone had filed an application on Velázquez’s behalf for a visa offered to victims of abuse.
Velázquez’s application inaccurately asserted that his eldest son abused him, and officials had denied his visa as well as his adjustment of status case about six months before his trip. Velázquez never realized the denials had happened.
Confused and outraged after his deportation, Velázquez’s family took their story to the media in New York. In short order, more than 100 families whose immigration cases had been submitted by Amankwaa reached out to Glassman, alleging to have had misleading visa applications filed without their knowledge. “Sadly, without candid legal representation, undocumented noncitizens are vulnerable,” Glassman said.
According to Guillermo Hernandez, whose Rivera Hernandez Campos firm handles immigration cases, scams centering on so-called Violence Against Women Act (Vawa) visas have become increasingly common. “Attorneys will typically lure in unsuspecting clients with the promise of quick work authorization and a [social security number], which will allow them to no longer have to be paid under the table,” Hernandez said.
Then, usually without the knowledge of the client, the scamsters typically find a client’s relative who is a US citizen and then falsely accuse them of being abusive on the Vawa application.
The ploy potentially yields great results in the short term because it can allow applicants to legally find employment while their Vawa application is being processed. It has been taking immigration authorities nearly three years to process Vawa applications, so victims of this type of scam may not know anything is wrong for long periods of time.
“However, these attorneys are not telling their clients that once their case is ultimately scrutinized and denied by [immigration officials], they risk deportation,” Hernandez said.
That’s exactly what befell Velázquez and numerous other victims, who are now left with few choices, their advocates say. Among those options is to seek out local elected officials and ask for help in making a case to obtain what is known as a U-visa.
A U-visa is typically for victims of certain crimes who are willing to cooperate with investigators, though there are other requirements. Elected officials can recommend that law enforcement agencies – such as a state attorney general’s office – look into such cases for possible criminal charges, which might facilitate victims’ U-visa applications.
US Congress members can be particularly influential if they send a letter to agencies like US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) urging them to pay especially close attention to certain cases.
Fortunately for Velázquez and others allegedly targeted by Amankwaa, that has happened. New York state assembly member Catalina Cruz and US congressman Ritchie Torres have both taken steps to intervene.
Cruz said she has already flagged this case to the state attorney general’s office. If that agency later decides against pursuing the case as a criminal matter, Cruz said she is prepared to recommend that local district attorney’s offices then pick up the mantle.
Cruz, an attorney herself, has good reason to take an interest in the case of someone like Velázquez. She came to the US from Colombia without documents, and earlier in her career she worked in the immigrant affairs division of New York’s state labor department. Among her duties there was certifying whether immigrants were crime victims as well as signing the papers needed for them to apply for U-visas.
Meanwhile, Torres has sent a letter directly to USCIS’s director, Ur Jaddou, informing her of the plight faced by Velázquez and others like him. The letter asked what USCIS can do to repatriate the people who were deported because of the scam along with what measures can be leveraged against predatory immigration authorities.
Amankwaa’s law license has remained in effect, though his page on the legal services review website Avvo is flooded with warnings to avoid him. Amankwaa couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Velázquez’s family has said he remains hopeful he can one day return to the US despite the slow-moving legal process he is now enduring.
Source: The Guardian