Maricela Haro
Maricela Haro was sentenced to five years for bilking thousands of dollars from undocumented Latino immigrants, claiming she would help them become legal residents. [Cook County Sheriff's Department of Corrections]

A Chicago woman who posed as an immigration attorney, promising her clients they would become legal permanent residents, was sentenced to five years in prison Tuesday for stealing money from undocumented Latino immigrants.

Maricela Haro pled guilty to 19 counts of “theft of property obtained by deception” for defrauding 19 people. Her victims said she also charged them $2,500 application fees and claimed her brother was a high-ranking U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service official who could help them obtain legal residency.

She has been held at the Cook County Jail since her arrest last October.

The case is a rare glimpse into a problem that plagues immigrant communities. Many victims are often reluctant to step forward because they are not U.S. citizens and are not familiar with the country’s legal system.

Though the counts carried sentences between 2 and 7 years, Haro received little more than three months for each. Prosecutors wouldn’t say whether she agreed to plead guilty for a lighter sentence.

At least one of her victims was upset with the outcome.

“I’m not satisfied with this sentence,” said Ivan Perez, who paid Haro $8,000 to help him and his wife become a legal permanent residents. “I was hoping she would get at least 15 years. For me, and the other people, this was not a minor crime. She kept the money and when she gets out she’ll do it again.”

Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia said because Haro doesn’t seem to have any assets, she won’t be paying any money back. He didn’t know how the sentence was reached.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Garcia, who helped the victims file the initial police report. “But it’s a little comforting to know she is going to jail.”

Garcia sympathized with the immigrants Haro defrauded and hopes others understand they should only rely on reputable organizations.

“A couple gave Haro $30,000 and I know it took them years of working two jobs to save that money and they will never see that money again,” he said. “I don’t know how else they can get justice.”

María Inés Zamudio covers immigration as part of WBEZ's race, class and communities team. She's previously served on investigative teams for American Public Media, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and The...