NEW YORK — At the time, Martin Torres Reyes thought he had found a path to a green card.
It was early 2015, and Torres, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, heard about a lawyer who was promising legal permanent residency to people who had lived in the United States for 10 years and had American-born children.
Torres went to see the lawyer, Thomas T. Hecht, at his Times Square office, and for an initial fee of $750, the lawyer said he would get a work permit in six months, and then some time later, the green card.
According to a lawsuit filed late Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, this was fraud. Hecht and his son, Leonard H. Hecht, the complaint said, tricked Reyes and at least 25 other undocumented immigrants from New York.
The plaintiffs all thought they were applying for a green card, but instead, they claimed in the suit that the lawyers filed different paperwork, for asylum, without their knowledge.
“Our community is under attack from all directions, and they know it,” Torres, 40, said in Spanish in an interview this week, referring to immigration lawyers. He paid a total of $1,100 to the Hechts in installments before leaving the firm.
The “10-year scheme,” lawyers say, is a two-step process, beginning with an asylum application. To qualify for asylum, applicants must show they were persecuted or fear persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion in their home country. Applications must be filed within a year of arrival, with narrow exceptions.
But the plaintiffs said that neither Thomas Hecht nor Leonard Hecht, who speaks Spanish, asked them specific questions about persecution before filing asylum applications without their knowledge.
Generally, once an applicant is found not to be eligible for asylum, the case is sent to the immigration courts and the deportation process begins. A lawyer can try to get the deportation canceled based on a client’s 10-year residency and U.S. citizen children. In some cases, the applicant could be then eligible for a green card, but the bar is very high: “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” to a U.S. citizen spouse, parent or child if he or she is deported. And even then, only 4,000 of these cases can be approved in a year.
According to federal statistics requested and compiled by the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law’s immigration clinic, which is a co-counsel in the suit, the Hecht firm had filed 1,039 asylum applications from November 2006 through January 2017. Cardozo said it could confirm only two asylum applications that were approved during that time. The data also shows that the Hechts had subsequently filed 188 applications for “cancellation of removal,” and that only six were listed as granted.
The 26 individuals who are plaintiffs in the suit, from Staten Island, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, are now at risk of deportation, as the Trump administration has said that any immigrant living in the United States illegally is a target.
Make the Road New York, an immigrant activist group, is representing Torres, and is also a plaintiff, suing under the federal racketeering and organized crime act known as RICO. So far, the clients have paid $58,506 to the Hecht firm or to new lawyers to reverse deportation proceedings; the plaintiffs are seeking damages up to three times that amount.
The suit also named a Staten Island tax preparer, Luis Guerrero, who steered clients to the law firm, according to the complaint.
At the offices of Thomas T. Hecht, 14 floors above Times Square, his son, Leonard Hecht, 55, was shocked and distraught when confronted with the accusations in the lawsuit late Wednesday. “It’s not true,” he said firmly. “We didn’t do anything fraudulent.”
Hecht insisted that he told his clients that was applying for asylum on their behalf and that they knew the risks. He said he met Guerrero only once, in his office, and that he did not partner with him. He declined to comment further.
There were more than a dozen potential clients waiting to see him Wednesday. His father, whom he said was an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor, was not in the office.
Amy Taylor, the co-legal director of Make the Road New York said the 10-year myth is pervasive, despite education efforts from her organization and others. She hoped this lawsuit would stop other lawyers from committing the same fraud. “The No. 1 question we get from clients is, ‘do I qualify for the 10-year visa?'” Taylor said. We say, ‘there’s no such thing, why don’t we sit down and explain.'”
The promise seems real to some immigrants at first because of a tangible outcome: six months into a pending asylum application, immigrants are eligible to receive a work permit. Because asylum backlogs can last longer than two years, immigrants would not discover the fraud for a while. And under the Obama administration, they were often allowed to stay in the country even though they were subject to deportation.
For some, applying for asylum and then gambling on the deportation order being overturned could be a viable legal strategy, according to Camille Mackler, legal policy director of the New York Immigration Coalition, an activist group, But she cautioned that was only if a client had a good-faith claim for asylum, a strong fallback case for canceling the removal, and, above all, that the lawyer advised the client of the deportation risk. E.G.R., 32, a Mexican-born mother of two U.S. citizen children, and one of the plaintiffs, said she did not realize the Hechts had applied for asylum for her until she was told to go to an interview with the government. She asked to be identified only by her initials because she is in deportation proceedings.
She said the asylum officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration services asked her, “Why are you asking for political asylum when you’ve been here so many years?”
She was not found eligible for asylum and has a hearing before an immigration court judge on May 18.
E.G.R. said she had been skeptical when her accountant, Guerrero, first referred her to the Hechts.
“I did ask if him if this person would steal my money because we worked so hard,'” E.G.R. said. “He said, ‘Why would you think that? I’m Hispanic as well.'”
Guerrero did not return a call left at his office.
Lawyers representing the plaintiffs say they are investigating other ways to protect clients thrust into the deportation pipeline, including whether they would be eligible for a visa as victims of fraud.
In a statement, USCIS said it could not address this specific case, but it has participated in prosecuting recent asylum fraud cases around the country.
What is different about this lawsuit, said Stephen H. Legomsky, a professor of immigration law at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, is that it “shines a light on the victim,” he said, whereas the focus had mostly been on immigrants committing fraud to obtain a benefit.
Another of the plaintiffs, who asked to be identified only by her initials, A.M.M., 46, paid the Hecht firm $4,856 and is in deportation proceedings.
To others who may be tempted by the easy promise of a green card, she has a message: “If something sounds too good to be true, keep an eye out on that.”
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