Ivan Perez said he never thought he would become an “easy prey” for immigration scammers. [Photo by Michelle Kanaar]

Maricela Haro had an elaborate strategy for finding vulnerable immigrants and scamming them out of thousands of dollars.

Some of Haro’s victims say her scheme revolved around winning their trust. It went like this: She falsely claimed that she was an immigration attorney, and that her brother was a high-ranking U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services official who would sign off on any legal residency application. She offered to meet potential clients at a restaurant, rather than at her downtown office, so she wouldn’t have to charge a $200 consultation fee. Then she promised them she could secure a permanent residency status within a year–regardless of their circumstances.

After she charged an initial $2,500 as part of the “application fee,” she went on to grow personally close with her victims. She invited them to her house for parties, including her daughter’s sweet 15–or “quinceañera”–and even asked one of them to pick up her children from school. She called some victims “compadre,” a term of endearment to close family friends. The victims say they spent so much time with Haro and her family that it made them trust her.

But Haro didn’t deliver what she promised, the victims said. After taking application fees, she told them to wait for a letter in the mail–sometimes for a year or more–and always came up with excuses when it didn’t arrive. After a while, she stopped answering calls.

The victims sought out a help from Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia. His staff helped them file complaints at the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission and the Chicago Police Department.

That led to Haro’s October arrest. She has since been indicted on “theft of property obtained by deception” for allegedly scamming 12 people, according to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. She is being held at the Cook County Jail until a Nov. 26 hearing and was unavailable to comment for this story.

Haro’s case provides a rare glimpse into a serious problem of immigration fraud that continues to plague immigrant communities. These cases normally don’t come to the surface as many victims are afraid—they are undocumented and not familiar with the legal system, said Laura Lichter, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, a group of attorneys who practice and teach immigration law.

“Victims are inherently vulnerable, and scammers count on that,” Lichter said. “Victims are not willing to come forward and report it. [Immigrants] don’t feel safe reporting it; they fear that, if they report it, they will get in trouble.”

Garcia said he’s seen the problem only get worse over the years, and he doesn’t expect it to go away any time soon. “I’m especially afraid that if the immigration reform happens,” he said. “There’s going to be an explosion of deceptive practices by shady characters waiting to rip people off.”

Ivan Perez said he never thought he would become an “easy prey” for scammers. He met Haro through a friend in 2011. She told him she could help him and his wife become a legal permanent resident–at the price of $2,500 each–and promised to get him a work authorization within a few months. She called later to ask for another $1,500 for each case to cover “your penalty for entering the country illegally,” Perez said in Spanish.

Perez waited for about nine months. Haro never answered when he began calling her to check on the status. Eventually, he figured out what had happened–and that he and his wife weren’t the sole victims. At a meeting organized by Garcia’s staff, he met more than 20 other victims. Some of them are still afriad to publicly come out to tell their stories, he said.

Perez said he had sacrificed time with his family to save money ever since he and his wife immigrated from the state of Michoacan, Mexico, more than a decade ago. He was able to save money by working two jobs and sleeping only for a couple of hours a day.

“I feel bad. I feel dumb,” Perez said. “My friends make fun of me. They ask me, ‘How didn’t you not know that she wasn’t a lawyer?’”

“I went to the police because she already stole money from me,” he added. “I don’t want that to happen to other people. I want her to pay for what she deserves.”

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...