A group of undocumented immigrants is calling on the state attorney general to investigate their claims that a Bronx man illegally took their money in exchange for promising them visas.
The immigrants claim they were victimized by Edwin Rivera, who has a history of legal problems and was arrested three years ago for falsely claiming to be an immigration lawyer. This time, they claim Rivera approached them in local churches and said they could qualify for religious visas.
“The pastor brought in this guy who sold himself as an expert on immigration law, expert on religious visas,” said attorney Anibal Romero, who is now representing 20 of the immigrants. But he said none of them actually qualified for this type of visa.
“And now many of them are in trouble because they have filed fraudulent paperwork and now could be deported from the United States.”
Romero said many of his clients come from indigenous communities in Ecuador, where Spanish isn’t their first language, while others hail from Mexico. He said he’s working with them for free to explore legal ways for them to remain in the U.S., such as cooperating with the authorities to obtain a U visa for victims of crime.
One of Romero’s clients is Juan Lemanche, who came from Ecuador more than a decade ago. “[Rivera] said that he could give us permanent residence for migrants who are religious like us,” he said. “We fell for it.”
Lemanche explained that he met Rivera at an evangelical Protestant church in Harlem last year, and paid $4,000 upfront to begin the application process, plus a $435 fee. He said others at his church did the same and didn’t get any formal receipts, but were told the process would take about eight months to a year.
To qualify for the religious visa, he said Rivera had them volunteer for a group called Homeward Bound Program in the Bronx, which is not actually a registered charity but has a website in Rivera’s name. A photograph provided by Romero, their current attorney, shows them wearing special uniforms and lanyards around their necks, containing copies of their visa applications. Lemanche claims Rivera said these documents would prevent them from being deported if they encountered ICE. This is not true and another immigrant services provider in the Bronx lost his business for selling phony ID’s, after an investigation by WNYC and Telemundo 47 in 2017.
As time passed, Lemanche said he kept asking Rivera to see any documents from the government. Eventually, Rivera gave him a letter and he learned “everything he said was not true” because their applications were denied.
Lemanche said he doesn’t blame his pastor, because he was innocent and took Rivera at his word. But he’s scared for his undocumented wife and his child, who is a U.S. citizen, because the government now has all of his information.
“There is a fear immigration will retaliate and send a letter of deportation,” he said. “I’m hoping the authorities can help us with this, it is very worrisome.”
Romero said religious visas do exist for people coming to the U.S. temporarily to work as ministers, but that none of his clients would have qualified. He said they were brave for coming forward, because most undocumented immigrants are not willing to risk reporting crimes for fear of being deported.
“It’s so sad that these people had been living here for such a long time, good people, no criminal record,” Romero said. “All they were looking for is an opportunity to become legal.”
State Attorney General Letitia James’s office said it would explore legal actions with regard to the latest allegations against Rivera.
“Edwin Rivera is a repeat offender who has cheated, defrauded, and preyed upon vulnerable immigrants looking for legitimate help navigating the legal system,” James said in a statement. “Not only has Rivera cheated countless individuals out of thousands of dollars by pretending to be an immigration attorney, he has also capitalized on the intense fear and anxiety created by the Trump Administration.”
Rivera did not respond to questions about the allegations, but referred us to a website where he says he’s suing the state AG for $100 million for slander following his prior arrest.
The AG’s office has been prosecuting Rivera for more than a decade. In 2004, it said Rivera placed several Spanish language advertisements in a local newspaper, falsely representing himself as a lawyer who could help immigrants gain status through a DREAM Act that was not actually passed by Congress. Later, it obtained an order that enjoined Rivera from engaging in false advertising and deceptive conduct, but he failed to comply.
From 2005 through 2016, the OAG filed four contempt motions and secured a 2008 order that permanently enjoined Rivera from providing immigration services in New York State. The office said he served three terms in jail, most recently for 30 days after the 2016 conviction.
The Bronx District Attorney’s office said its Economic Crimes Bureau would reach out to Romero about his clients’ complaints.
Immigrants who believe they’re victims of fraud can contact the state’s Office of New Americans at 1-800-566-7636.