USCIS & DHS Takedown Immigration Fraud Scheme Directed at Families

In Florida, federal prosecutors and the United States Attorney Maria Chapa Lopez announced indictment charges for Erika Paola Intriago, of Tampa, Florida. Intriago stands accused of four counts of wire fraud and three counts of wrongfully using government seals. Allegedly, Intriago posed as an immigration attorney through social media, manipulating immigrants and immigrant families from Florida to Illinois. If proven guilty, Intriago could face a penalty of 20 years for each count of wire fraud and up to five years in prison for each count of unauthorized use of governments seals.

Alleged Scheme

According to the indictment released by the Department of Justice (DOJ), Intriago posed as a licensed and qualified immigration attorney, despite holding no license to practice law in the state of Florida or any state for that matter. Intriago operated a business under the name of “EPI Services, INC” that purportedly helped assist individuals and families with all legal immigration matters. Through social media platforms like Facebook, Intriago advertised her services as a qualified legal expert in immigration matters to Hispanic immigrants around Florida. She particularly targeted vulnerable Spanish-speaking families, claiming to be a licensed immigration attorney. Victims of Intriago’s scheme needed assistance with matters before the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) and other agencies and payed Intriago to communicate between immigration agencies and the immigrant families both domestically and abroad. Intriago manipulated many of her victims by promising to secure her clients legal status if the victims payed through cash or money order. Intriago promised to pay USCIS fees directly, and instead pocketed the money without submitted forms or payments to the government. Intriago also stands accused of unauthorized use of government seals as a part of her scheme. Intriago would allegedly “create, copy, and affix seals of government agencies of the United States, including DHS and USCIS, to email messages, letters, and other documents created for and sent to her client-victims as purported proof that she was and had been acting on their behalf in immigration proceedings.” For some victims who had completed paperwork, Intriago either abandoned the immigration paperwork or did not inform her victims about notices of denial. Those victims who complained to Intriago were further victimized as Intriago would threaten to report undocumented clients to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agency for deportation.

If you suspect someone is unlawfully posing as a licensed attorney, or you are someone or are aware of someone who is a possible victim please contact 1-866-DHS-2ICE.

USCIS on Marijuana (Naturalization)

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) updated policies related to conditional bars to naturalization due to substance abuse violations. The policy memo notes that regardless of state law, controlled substance related activity will create a conditional bar to establish good moral character for naturalization. Despite legalization in several states, Marijuana use may put naturalization applicants at risk of denial.

Marijuana & Federal Law

Marijuana, a controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 812) is permitted for recreational consumption and medical consumption in several US states and territories. The USCIS policy memo states that despite the increasing acceptance in the form of legalization or decriminalization of Marijuana in areas across the country since 1996, including the District of Columbia, federal law maintains that Marijuana is a controlled substance. In fact, Marijuana is listed as a “Schedule I” controlled substance whose “manufacture, cultivation, possession, or distribution may lead to criminal and immigration consequences.”

To become a naturalized citizen, applicants must prove good moral character. Evidence of controlled substance-related activity leads to a conditional bar to establishing good moral character, regardless if the individual operates within state law. Additionally, those who are employed in the Marijuana industry, whether directly or indirectly, may be barred from establishing good moral character. The policy clarification states “[an] applicant who is involved in certain marijuana related activities may lack [good moral character] if found to have violated federal law, even if such activity is not unlawful under applicable state or foreign laws.” Therefore, those who are found to consume or profit from the Marijuana industry, regardless of state legality, are deemed without good moral character under the USCIS policy manual. While the policy update largely targets those applicants in states which legalized marijuana, the controlled substance bar applies to all substances filed under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 812).

False Naturalization Statements Leads to Jail Time

When completing a naturalization application, or any application for visa or citizenship privileges, applicants are held under the penalties of federal law. In Worcester, Massachusetts a man is in custody under charges of making a false statement on an application for naturalization. While many believe making false statements to conceal any past unpleasantries (e.g. former criminal charges, etc.) may increase their chances of receiving approval for benefits sought, willful omission of facts or direct false statements in an application, for naturalization or any immigration benefit can lead to federal prosecution.

Worcester Case

The individual in custody, who remains innocent until proven guilty, stands accused of making a false statement on his application for naturalization. Richard Cheremeh, although real identity unknown, was charged with one count of making a false statement relating to his naturalization and one count of aggravated identity theft. The indictment lists the man under the name John Doe due to suspicion that the individual listed as “Richard Cheremeh” has stolen the identity. During “Doe’s” naturalization process, the man falsely stated that he had never given any US government official any information or documentation that was false, fraudulent, or misleading, one of the common questions on the N-400 application for naturalization. This contradicts allegations the man’s naturalization was obtained through the use of a stolen identity. By allegedly lying on question 31 of the N-400 application, “Doe,” if found guilty, is now at risk of a federal prison sentence.

Federal Penalties

If someone is found guilty of making a false statement related to their naturalization, this individual will face prison time for no greater than five years including three years of supervised release. Additionally, guilty parties face up to a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of fines. “Doe,” who is additionally charged with identity theft could face a minimum of two years in prison and up to one year of supervised release with an additional penalty of up to quarter of a million dollars. The details of the idictment were made public to warn other of the consequences of false statements on applications for naturalization. The individual in custody is presumed innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in the federal court responsible for this case.

Request Certificates of Citizenship Online: Online Filing

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) announced late last month a new set of eligible visas and naturalization filings for online applications. With an online account, applicants can now complete and file a Form N-600, Application for Certificate of Citizenship. Additionally, USCIS announced that N-600K, Application for Citizenship and Issuance of Certificate Under Section 322 is now available online.

Digital Push

Over the last couple of years, USCIS has continued efforts to move filings, including all paperwork required, online. The director of USCIS, L. Francis Cissna expressed the services major goal to move into the digital age: “One of the major burdens to both benefit seekers and the agency’s adjudicators is the costly, time consuming, and cumbersome process of traditional paper filing.” The new visa classification available for online filing follows seven other visa classifications that have transitioned to online filing. “This addition to our online capabilities is yet another positive advancement toward a more efficient and convenient filing experience for everyone involved.” Other applications available for online filing include: Form I-90, Form N-336, Form N-400, Form N-565, among others.

Eligible Applicants

Applications for Certificates of Citizenship, form N-600, are available to individuals and their minor children if they were born abroad and are claiming United States citizenship at birth through their parents or automatically became a United States citizen after birth, but before they turned 18 years old. This naturalization application is often used by military service people for their children born abroad, however U.S. service members have separate requirements for naturalization. To complete the online filing, eligible applicants must createa USCIS online account. Once applicants create an account, either the applicant or the applicant’s counsel can complete and submit the Form N-600 or N-600K, including additional information and filing fees. Once submitted, applicants can monitor the status of their application, respond to request for evidence, and manage their contact information.

USCIS Introduces Online Fee Calculator

Regardless of the visa application, calculating total fees for filings can be a hassle. But what many don’t realize is that an improperly calculated fee payment would result in rejection of the complete application thereby leading to a longer application process. This tedious process has left many with rejected applications due to citing and submitting the incorrect or incomplete total filing fee. To amend this, USCIS now offers a free Online Fee Calculator to assist those filing their forms through a USCIS agency lockbox facility.

Calculating Fees

From the Immigrant Petition for Aliens Worker (Form I-140) to Applications for Naturalization (Form N-400), applications and petitions for citizenship and immigration benefits require payments to fund processing costs. While a significant sum, these fees enable USCIS to operate as the service almost entirely relies on application and petition fees. Often these fees change to adjust to changing processing costs and inflation. Through the new online calculator, applicants and petitioners can find out the exact filing and biometric fees required for their particular application. The Online Fee Calculator is up to date, and reflects any recent adjustments to fees. The online calculator matches up-to-date filing fees with the forms selected by the drop down menu found on the website. By selecting your form, the fee calculator will either present you with a flat fee rate, or if you filing fee varies, prompt additional information to determine your category or age group. Those who wish to file concurrent forms can multiple form calculations to receive a total filing amount. However, the tool does not currently offer a feature to calculate fees for multiple individuals. Once users have responded to the questionnaire, the Online Fee Calculator will include biometric fees, if necessary, as well as the total fee amount. This total represents the amount that should be filed with applications and petitions submitted to USCIS.

Improper Fees

Each year, USCIS processes millions of applications and petitions. Those which require fees are sometimes submitted with out-of-date and incorrect payments. Those applications are automatically rejected. For those filing at Lockbox facilities, checks, money orders, and credit card payments for applications may include the incorrect fee total. With the new Online Fee Calculator, applicants can rest assured that their fee payment is up-to-date to avoid rejections.

Civics Test Question Update: New Answers

Those who wish to become a citizen, and do not qualify for a test waiver, must complete the Civics Test to finish the naturalization process. Those preparing for the U.S. history and government test focuses on a variety of subjects, including knowledge about representatives. Every couple of years, either due to information or election changes, the answers on the Civics Test change.

Tests Answers Reflect Federal and State Elections

From time to time, answers on the Civics Test for naturalization change to reflect federal and state elections. A new group of officials, elected in the 2018 midterms, were sworn into office early this year, changing several answers on the exam. Questions impacted include:

  • Who is one of your state’s U.S. senators now?
  • Name your U.S. representative.
  • Who is the Governor of your state now?
  • What is the name of the Speaker of the House of Representatives now?

The information for both U.S. senators for your state is updated on the senate website. Information regarding your representative can be found on the House of Representativeswebsite, however you will need your current residential information to find your congressional district. To find information about the current Speaker of the House Representative, USCIS has created a “test updates” page which lists the current speaker. To find information about your state’s current governor, you may visit usa.gov/states-and-territories. Several gubernatorial inaugurations take place well into the new year, so be sure to check regularly to stay updated on the governor of your state on the day of your Civics Test.

Other Test Updates

Periodically, other questions on the Civics Test may change. For instance, once a Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court retires, a new justice in named in their place by the President. To receive any updates about questions that may change, visit the USCIS test update page.

Government Shutdown: EB-5 Program & Immigration Agencies

In the absence of congressional authorization, the EB-5 foreign investors visa program was set to end on December 21st of 2018. However, following the government shutdown that began on December 20th of 2018 and continues into the 2019, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) announced that the future of the EB-5 program will remain pending until funding legislation passes in Congress. However, the shutdown will not drastically impact other application processes for visa benefits.

Impact on EB-5 Applications Prior to December 21st

USCIS notes that any Form I-924, Application for Regional Center Designation Under the Immigrant Investor Program, will not be accepted as of December 21st. Those Form I-924 applications still pending will remain on hold until funding is either allocated or denied to the EB-5 program. USCIS notes that it will continue to accept regional center-affiliated Form I-526s,  Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur, and Forms I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status submitted before close of business on December 22nd. However, the aforementioned applications will remain on hold until the end of the government shutdown.

Additional Visas Impacted

As reported during the last government shutdown, most vital functions of the United States government will continue while the government is shutdown. In particular, the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) will continue to function at ports of entry. Therefore, foreign nationals need not cancel travel plans abroad during the shutdown. The US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) will additionally remain open during the shutdown. Thus, any applications or petitions that include fee processing, will continue to be processed through the shutdown (e.g. adjustment of status, etc.). Visa processing services provided by US consulates, and managed by the Department of State, will also continue while the government is shutdown. The Department of Labor, which received funding in September of 2018, will continue Labor Condition Application processing. Although these essential government agencies will remain open during the shutdown, it is unclear when the shutdown will end, and whether programs like the EB-5 visa program, will continue into 2019.

DHS Proposed Rule: New Changes to Public Charge Inadmissibility

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has released a new proposed rule which would outline the ways in which the agency determines a foreign national is inadmissible due to risk of becoming a public charge. Foreign nationals who wish to enter the U.S. or adjust their immigration status must provide evidence of financial stability, and establish that they will not become a ‘public charge,’ or dependent on government assistance, during their stay. Public charge inadmissibility does not, however, currently apply to naturalization proceedings or other protected classes of nonimmigrants. The new proposal seeks to require foreign nationals seeking extensions of status or adjustment of status “to demonstrate that they have not received, are not currently receiving, nor are likely to receive, public benefits.” The new proposal seeks to more clearly define the term ‘public charge’ for the purpose of determining admissibility.

Major Changes

The proposed rule would change current standards for determining admissibility due to the risk of becoming a future public charge. Additionally, DHS would define the types of public benefits that make a foreign national subject to public charge inadmissibility while including a designated threshold of benefits allowed for all nonimmigrants receiving such benefits. DHS also seeks to make it more difficult for current foreign national public charges to gain approval for a change of status or extension of stay application. The rule would apply to all individuals seeking to adjust their status to that of a lawful permanent resident. However, USCIS notes that “lawful permanent residents who subsequently apply for naturalization would not be subject to inadmissibility determinations, including a public charge inadmissibility determination.”  

Those seeking entrance as refugees, asylees, Afghans and Iraqis with special immigrant visas, nonimmigrant trafficking and crime victims, individuals applying under the Violence Against Women Act, and special immigrant juveniles would be excluded from inadmissibility based on likelihood of public charge. Those applicants with “financial assets, resources, and support of at least 250 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines” or those applicants with an income larger than 250 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, are more likely to be excluded from inadmissibility on the ground of public charge status.

Digital Border Search Under Federal Scrutiny: CBP

Last month, a federal suit brought forth new questions surrounding individual property rights at the U.S. border. Two months ago, an American woman filed a federal suit against the Department of Homeland Security after Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents seized her smartphone upon return to the United States and made copies of the data found on the device. Rejhane Lazoja, a Muslim-American woman, asked a federal judge to compel border officials to erase all data copied from her iPhone following the February seizure. On October 30th, Lazoja was granted her request when DHS settled the case by deleting all of Lazoja’s data collected by CBP. However, the lawsuit sheds new light on the continued uncertainty surrounding digital property rights at the border.

Border Doctrine

Unlike inside the U.S., CBP officers may search and seize property from individuals entering the country without a warrant. This “border doctrine” allows CBP officers to take property, including cellular devices, without approval from a judge. At the border, CBP agents may seize cellphones for an extended period of time, during which data is collected from the electronic device. In the case of Lazoja v. Nielson, the plaintiffs stated that the “seizure, retention, and any sharing of [Rejhane Lazoja’s] property without reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or a warrant have violated Ms. Lazoja’s rights under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

Although Lazoja received her cellphone 130 days after re-entering the U.S., DHS retained data collected from her device, including confidential correspondence with Lazoja’s attorneys. By retaining the American woman’s property for a period longer than 120 days, without a warrant or reasonable suspicion, the representatives for Ms. Lazoja argued that her Constitutional rights had been violated. Although the case was settled before adjudication, the problem surrounding data seizure, and retention, at the border remains. CBP maintains full discretion to seize and copy data from electronic devices belonging to individuals crossing the border, regardless of their citizenship status. As CBP agents become more strict under the direction of President Trump, there may be a rise in property and data seizures in the coming months.

USCIS Aims to Slash Some Request for Fee Waiver

Recently, the United States Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) released a proposed revision to fee waivers offered to lower-income immigrants. For those currently living in the United States seeking to naturalize, this proposed change could place a significant financial burden on struggling families. Filed through the Federal Register, the proposed change is currently open for public comment from affected parties until November 27th.

Proposed Change

Currently, the government offers automatic USCIS fee waivers for those individuals receiving means-tested public benefits. Means-tested public benefits include Food Stamps, Medicaid, SSI, TANF, and SCHIP as well as other benefits specific to certain states. Additionally, those within the federal poverty threshold (i.e. those households with an income at or below 150% of the poverty level at the time of filing) and individuals who can prove “financial hardship” can receive a waiver of immigration filing fees.

The proposed change would seek to remove automatic waivers for those with means-tested benefits from the Form I-912, Request for Fee Waiver. USCIS states that the change comes as measure to remove fee waiver eligibility based on “benefits [that] can vary from state to state, depending on the state’s income level guidelines.” For example, an applicant from California making over $50,000 a year qualifies for means-tested benefits, whereas an applicant from Alabama earning an equivalent income does not.

By restricting fee waivers to those who fall near the federal poverty line standards and financial hardship standards, USCIS hopes to see a rise in fee revenues. In fiscal year 2017 alone, USCIS granted over $367 million dollars word of fee waivers, an increase of over $20 million from last year. Although revenue will increase for USCIS, many individuals with unstable income will now face a significant financial burden. Naturalization filing fees alone can cost nearly over $600, excluding biometric fees. Thus, a struggling family living in California, where the cost of living is the 4thhighest in the U.S., would have to pay thousands of dollars to file naturalization applications if the change to the fee waiver is approved.