“If You Don’t Pay Me That Money, You’ll Be Deported”
A Massachusetts lawyer defrauded more than 1,000 Brazilian immigrants in an elaborate asylum scam. This exploitation is all too common.
Eleven years ago, Ricardo Souza was driving home when heard the two-tone howl of a police siren and was pulled over. The officer asked to see his license, and Ricardo produced his driving permit from Brazil.
“He asked me a bunch of questions and I said, ‘Hey, that’s all I have. They let me get insurance, they let me drive — so that’s why I’m driving now. But he said, ‘oh no, you can’t drive with that.’”
Ricardo had wended his way from Brazil to America via Mexico, crossing the border with the dream of a “better life and better opportunities,” for him and his wife. When Ricardo headed to court, his driver’s license case was dismissed, but an immigration officer was there as well — later that day he found himself in the Plymouth County Correctional Facility, which under contract with ICE, holds detainees.
Ricardo’s wife immediately hired a lawyer who told them, “he’s going to be deported,” but Ricardo refused to give up. He got the number of Marinalva Harris — a paralegal working for local attorney George Maroun — and scheduled an appointment. Marinalva and Maroun were quick to reassure Ricardo and his wife that they’d not only get him out of ICE, but usher him through the entire process of getting his green card.
“I‘ve never been in a jail in my life,” Ricardo said. “I never got arrested. So everything for me, it was scary, and my wife, she was six months pregnant at that time. They told me everything I wanted to hear — it was like a life saving. When they came, I asked them how the system was supposed to work and they said, ‘don’t worry about it, if you pay us.’” They asked Ricardo and his wife for about $12,000, an enormous sum given their circumstances.
Ricardo says he and his wife were still fledgling English speakers and didn’t understand the paperwork they signed, confusion further compounded by the dense language of the law.
“George and Marinalva told us, ‘It’s okay. He’s going to get out. He’s gonna get his work permit. We’re going to get his driver’s license and he’s going to be fine.’ And I was like, wow. I didn’t even ask how they were going to do it because at that point, the only thing I wanted was to get out of that place.”
Terrified from his experience at ICE and buoyed by the freedom Maroun promised, Ricardo says the day his wife picked him up from ICE they drove straight from the detainment facility to Maroun’s office in Woburn.
“I came to their office and the first thing they ask for is payment. It’s easy for them to manipulate people because when you’re here illegally, you’re in fear all the time. You realize they know how to push the button.”
Ricardo’s meeting with Maroun would mark the beginning of a harrowing 11-year journey riddled with manipulation, extortion, and fear, a journey that just last month, finally came to an end. Maroun was recently found to have violated the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act G.L. c. 93A by the Middlesex Superior Court for defrauding more than 1,000 Brazilian immigrants in an elaborate immigration asylum scam.
The case first appeared on Sam Shusterman’s radar in 2017 — Shusterman is Senior Counsel in the Consumer Protection Division in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office — as an inquiry from a staff person at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
“They sent us an email and said, ‘I’ve got this woman who’s complaining about this immigration attorney, and she’s got a really compelling set of facts. She says she knows a lot of other people who were wronged in the same way, but she’s had a difficult time getting in touch with somebody that might be able to help her. Would your office look at it?’”
Shusterman says that it was a little unusual for this complaint to reach her in the Consumer Protection Division — an office that keeps its eye on “unfair or deceptive practices” in business — but the fact that it did would prove to be the foundational success in taking down Maroun.
Shusterman got the contact information for the first victim they spoke to from their contact at USCIS and met them at the Everett Public library.
“We stayed until the library closed, and from there organized in the community to meet more and more people who had been the victim of essentially the same scam and practices by George Maroun. And we did this for years.”
Shusterman’s office met with nearly a hundred people in the course of this case, developing the facts and determining the best way to present the claims and the strongest witnesses to present at trial.
A couple of years after meeting Maroun, Ricardo had completed plumbing school and says, “life was moving,” but he and his wife finally saw some red flags.
“Every time we meet them, [George says], ‘you’re my best client, you always pay on time. We never have a problem. But you see this guy here? I don’t know what’s going to happen to him, he’s not paying us.’”
Ricardo says Maroun began openly threatening him when he balked at yet another fee and price hike to keep his immigration process going. “He says to me, ‘if you don’t pay me that much money, I know the time you’re going to be deported.’”
“I remember I couldn’t sleep anymore. I have stomach aches. You feel you have no control of your life. They abuse you and you have to do whatever they tell you to do, or something’s going to happen.”
Ricardo and his wife were two of the first five people that Shusterman interviewed for purposes of investigating this case. She says at first blush, they were concerned that it could appear as a “he said, she said” situation with Maroun insisting, ‘these consumers knew what they were getting into, they voluntarily entered into these agreements and signed these documents. And now they’re just mad because they’re going to be deported.’
“But I’m a consumer protection attorney,” says Shusterman, “and my chief at the time of my division was a consumer protection attorney. And so we looked at it from that angle and thought creatively about how we could use the statute to get at these practices. Things like, it’s unfair and deceptive to have someone sign a contract that they can’t read, that you don’t explain to them. That’s a classic 93A sort of case.”
Shusterman says that this asylum scam is one that’s been run in all sorts of immigrant communities for a very long time by lawyers, but historically it’s been difficult to hold lawyers accountable for. But by using 93A they were able to build a powerful case against Maroun, a feat she believes is unprecedented in Massachusetts.
David Ureña — a former fellow at PRP — is an Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division and joined the team in the summer of 2021 to help prepare the case for trial before heading to court in October and serving as co-counsel.
Ureña says that one of Attorney General Healey’s priorities was making sure the AG’s office serves all communities throughout Massachusetts — including those that may have historically not had strong connections with this state enforcement agency.
“Part of what we have identified as a major issue with immigrant communities is the practice of notario fraud [when individuals not licensed to practice law profess to be qualified in legal matters], and another part is just how these practices depend on this general environment of fear.”
Shusterman echoes these concerns. “You’ve got a population of victims that are so vulnerable, right? Unfamiliar with the legal system, desperate for help, often not native English speakers, often without status or with precarious status, with so much to lose and so few resources to figure out what they’re actually being offered.”
And Ureña and Shusterman both emphasize that this fear is a powerful barrier to enforcement; if the Attorney General’s office doesn’t know about the bad actors, they can’t begin to develop a case against them.
“You need to meet people where they are,” says Shusterman. “You need to spend the time to build trust and build real relationships. And that means nights, weekends, not having people come to your office and go through a bunch of metal detectors and ID scans.”
Ureña says that a vital piece of breaking this predatory cycle is also about education, which can foster trust in local government and interrupt the flow of misinformation being provided to folks.
“We need to make sure that people know what their rights are and that they should exercise caution whenever they are planning on working with somebody who may present themselves as an attorney or paralegal. It’s a matter of trying to saturate the different sources of information that people will be looking at,” keeping an especially keen eye on social media.
The judge found that Maroun repeatedly violated the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act in all kinds of ways from filing immigration applications on behalf of new clients without their knowledge or consent, failing to explain the legal processes he would use in their cases, filing inadequate asylum applications containing false information, filing untimely asylum applications which were nearly certain to result in denial and lead to removal proceedings, and using threats of deportation to collect attorney’s fees.
While the trial is over, and Ricardo has gone on to get his license, a green card, and even open his own business, he says he and wife are still haunted by what they went through.
“We always think they could do something bad to us. I put cameras in my house everywhere. I have a camera in my car because you know, those people, they can do anything. Every time I think about them, I get so angry, so mad, and we’re afraid still.”
Ricardo believes he and his family spent about $60,000 on Maroun’s “services,” but can only prove about $33,000 because Maroun often insisted on a “cash discount” and rarely provided receipts of payment. But as Ricardo told the judge, it’s not about the money.
“The only thing we want is justice to be served. I don’t want the other people to go through what we went through.”