Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey has filed a civil action in the public interest on behalf of the State of Maine claiming that defendant Shonda Okonda knowingly and illegally practiced immigration law. Okonda’s actions violate Maine’s Immigration and Nationality Law Assistance Act, and the attorney general is seeking civil penalties, including up to $10,000 for each civil violation. 

The action states that Okonda exploited his position as a religious leader to gain the trust of newly arrived immigrants to Maine; that he personally profited financially by charging money for his illegal activities; that he was irresponsible with mail he received from immigration agencies on behalf of the people he was pretending to help, thereby putting them at risk of removal proceedings and even deportation; that he included incorrect, incomplete, and misleading information on forms he completed for clients, thereby putting their applications at risk; and that he knowingly and falsely claimed that he employed “a team of lawyers” in his organization, which he called the Christian Association for Peace, Leadership, and Development, and which he falsely described as a nonprofit. According to the action, Okonda’s organization had no attorneys, and he himself provided legal assistance with immigration paperwork to more than 50 individuals in the past four years. 

The attorney general has held a number of gatherings in recent weeks explaining the Immigration and Nationality Law Assistance Act to members of community groups. In addition, Frey has announced a new opportunity for online training that will lead to accreditation for interested people who want to assist with immigration applications. For more information, see www.maine.gov/ag/immigration/

L to R: Ruben Torres (MIRC), Martha Stein (Hope Acts), Claudette Ndayininahaze (In Her Presence) Mufalo Chitham (MIRC), Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey, Mathurin Ngoy (Hope Acts), and Laura Lee Barry Wommack, Assistant Attorney General

On June 11, Amjambo Africa’s Jean Hakuzimana interviewed Attorney General Aaron Frey about the action against Okonda, the law, and the rights of citizens to protection from bad actors. 

Jean Hakuzimana: Thank you for joining me today. Please introduce yourself.  

Aaron Frey: My name is Aaron Frey. I have had the privilege of serving as Maine’s Attorney General for the last five years. It is my job to look out for the legal interests of citizens across Maine, which is what brought us to the issue of the unauthorized practice of immigration law. 

JH: Would you tell us what the unauthorized practice of immigration law is? What is the law? 

AF: Maine has [the authorized Immigration and Nationality Law Assistance Act] that protects individuals when it comes to accessing the legal services that are required to help apply for asylum. The law states that attorneys and certain individuals who have been certified under federal law are authorized to … help people identify the forms that they might need to fill out, help them fill out the forms, help them provide answers, [and] get the forms filed, so that a person can proceed with very important immigration legal claims. In many cases, we have individuals who have come to the U.S. and they’re going through the legal process in order to ensure that they are able to stay here, to be free from the oppression or the risk to themselves and their families that exists in the countries from which they came. There probably isn’t much more important that they have to be concerned about than these legal services. Maine has a law on the books that ensures that whoever is providing the legal services is qualified. If somebody who is not a federally authorized immigration representative is providing these legal services – that’s a problem, because they’re not supposed to be under Maine law. 

They could be creating problems for the person that they’re trying to help because they may be providing bad advice, since they’re not trained to provide that advice. So … Maine law allows the attorney general to bring an action, to stop this. 

JH: What have you been seeing in terms of the scope of the problem of unauthorized people presenting themselves to help people apply for asylum? 

AF: We had been hearing complaints from those who had been victims of receiving unauthorized legal services from folks who said they could help, then were not able to help, or possibly did not even file the application, though they charged money for it. We heard from friends and family who said that they knew somebody who was not receiving appropriate services under the law. We heard from different immigrant advocacy groups who were telling us that they knew that this [illegal practice] was going on out in different communities. They’d heard about people providing legal services who were not qualified to do so. And as we spent time understanding what the extent of the problem might be, we learned that there were people who were losing money, who were losing valuable time, to file the paperwork that they needed to file to secure their status here in Maine and in the U.S. We heard about individuals who were holding themselves out to be something that they were not which, as a consequence, was creating problems for New Mainers who were doing everything they could to follow the law but were being scammed by somebody who was not following the law. 

Over the last two years, we’ve worked to identify the extent of the problem and have provided some resources on the Office of the Attorney General website to help make sure that New Mainers understand their rights, that they have have a resource by which they can understand what their rights are when it comes to accessing legal services for their immigration legal work. 

We wanted to make sure that the public was notified that they need to be on guard for scams. … We – members of my team and myself – have been working with and talking to different groups and victims with the goal of figuring out how we can ensure that folks are not scammed, that folks are finding a way to access our qualified services, and help make sure that if there are folks out there who are trying to scam other people, who are holding themselves out to be somebody that they’re not, we want people to tell the attorney general, so that we can try to protect the public from those people. 

JH: You’ve been diving into this issue for two years. What are the common findings, the numbers of people who have been scammed? Do you know yet how big the issue is? 

AF: We have a sense. I don’t have a specific number to give you but I can say that based on what we’ve learned from our contacts … this is a real concern. The one case that we did bring against a person who had been providing services he was not lawfully able to provide – there were at least 20-plus individuals who had been scammed by that individual, and we had evidence to show that there were many more whose paperwork had been filed by this person … and maybe their [asylum] cases were impacted. We had enough information to know that this was a real immediate concern, that it did require action, that it did require making sure people were on notice of what their rights are, and of how to be on the lookout for somebody who might try to take advantage. 

My hope is that we will receive more complaints, now that more people have the opportunity to learn about what is and is not appropriate. We’re asking the community to let us know if you are being scammed or to let us know if you’ve been the victim of somebody saying they can provide these legal immigration services, but are not qualified to do so. 

Attorney General Aaron Frey and Mulenga Mutapa, Multicultural Outreach Worker, York County Community Action Corporation

JH: What are the legal consequences for these activities? 

AF: This is a civil action … not criminal. This isn’t something where the person is going to go to jail. The action that we brought is … getting a court order to stop this person. There were individuals who paid this person money for something that he wasn’t able to do. It’s an opportunity to try to get some of that money back to the people who paid it … and to make sure that the public knows that my office is paying attention. And if there is evidence to suggest that somebody is taking advantage of other people in this way, we will bring a case just like we did for this person. 

When somebody is trying to provide legal immigration services but isn’t qualified to do it, that’s a scam. When it comes to consumer protection, what I want to do as attorney general is make sure that consumers know their rights, and if their rights are violated, we can figure out a way to make sure that those victims are taken care of. 

JH: I’m thinking about the trust you have in your spiritual leader, like a pastor.  

AF: Well, you are right about that. And somebody may be losing money, or their legal paperwork may not be filed correctly, which can have very significant consequences on their immigration application. Those consequences can be very serious. … You mentioned a pastor, and the case that we just brought was against … an individual who was not only saying he was able to provide services, but he had opened up a separate church, where he was the pastor. And so he was using that relationship … sort of a mixed pressure … [a person thinks] “That person’s my pastor, and he’s saying, ‘Trust me,’ and I trust him with my spiritual well-being. Why wouldn’t I trust him with my legal well-being also? Because he’s saying he can do it.” 

Those who are filing for their immigration status – I am sensitive to a number of these folks who have come from places where you can’t always trust the government, where if you have a problem you are probably not going to go tell a government official, because the government was likely who persecuted them. That’s the whole point when it comes to an asylum application – the government was not looking out for your best interests. 

So, this person – I’m concerned that he knew that the people that he was scamming would not tell the government that they were being scammed, and so that he could get away with it. … Going to your point about the sort of the pressure that may be put on people – the manipulation or the taking advantage of [that] this involved. 

So that’s why it’s important that people do make complaints to my office if they believe that they have been a victim of a scam like this, or they believe somebody else has been a victim of a scam like this. The more we know, the more information that I have … the better able we’re going to be to protect consumers, to protect New Mainers, to protect those who are applying for immigration status here in Maine, here in the U.S. Because you’re right, there are different ways in which scammers may apply pressure or may take advantage of a situation that makes it that much more concerning. 

JH: As you know, there is a shortage of authorized people who can help with immigration applications, which is why people turn to unauthorized people. Where do you suggest people go for help with their immigration paperwork? 

AF: There are a lot of really hardworking people out there who are trying to provide these services. Take, for example, In Her Presence, Hope Acts, the Immigration Legal Advocacy Project. These are all groups who either have authorized people who are providing legal services for individuals making immigration applications, or who refer out to attorneys or federally authorized people. But we still have a need for more federally authorized immigration representatives who can provide these services. 

So, my office is working to identify different attorneys, different individuals who are willing to train up to become federally authorized immigration representatives. We have a little bit of money that we can use to help train folks up to increase the capacity, increase the number of people who are going to be able to provide their services. That’s going to take a little bit of time, but we are working to find folks who can commit to spending some time doing this in Maine … attend the training, attend the certification classes that are necessary to be able to provide these services in a meaningful way. So, in the not too distant future, there’ll be a little bit more of an increased capacity to provide this assistance. 

JH: I’d like to ask about the interim solution while we are bridging that gap. 

AF: There are guides online, what I call a self-help guide, and forms in multiple languages, that will help somebody understand how they can proceed with their own case. So if somebody shows up and they cannot find somebody who’s authorized to help them, there is a resource that they can access that will provide a guide for them, probably in their native language, on how to proceed. 

And there are some services that somebody who’s not trained can provide that may be helpful. For example … simple translation services … it’s OK to ask somebody to just translate forms … or, if somebody is trying to fill out the form, but needs to have their answer translated directly onto the form, they can get help with that – the law does not prevent somebody from helping with translation. What’s important, though, is that the translation service can’t be adding or subtracting from what the form says, or what the person answers. Translation is OK so long as there’s no advice being provided. And a person can help refer somebody to an appropriate resource or can help the person get the form that they’re asking for. So, if someone says “I need such-and-such a form,” a person can go get that form – but they can’t say, “No, no, no, you don’t want that form. You want a different form” – because that’s providing legal advice. 

You could also go to the [Office of the] Attorney General’s homepage, and there’s a link for immigration issues. If you click, you’ll find information about your rights, and where you could get a referral, and who’s certified to provide these services. And it also has information about what services can be provided that won’t violate the law – like translation services. 

JH: Let’s take this moment to remind those who are newly in Maine what they should avoid when they are building their cases for asylum. 

AF: First of all, the person should avoid accepting services without confirming that those services are authorized. So, if somebody comes up to you and says, “I can help you with your paperwork,” you should avoid paying money to somebody until you’ve confirmed that the person is legally authorized to provide that service. Because once you’ve paid money out, it’s going to be awfully hard to get it back. Also, when you’re answering questions [on the paperwork], always make sure that you’re doing so truthfully and to the best of your ability. Because if you are not truthful, or if you’re not making a good faith effort, that could come back and [negatively] impact a claim – if it’s shown that you were not truthful, or if it’s shown that you were not acting in good faith. 

JH: Thank you so much. Any last words? 

AF: I encourage folks to go check out the Office of the Attorney General website here in Maine. We do have translation into five different languages and we’re working to develop more. Remember, if you believe that you have been a victim of a scam, or if you believe that you have been targeted because of your race or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation, please let us know. Call the attorney general’s office; let law enforcement know. Because we want to make sure that folks are not scammed. And we want to make sure that people are protected against bias-based activity. So, if you think you’ve been victimized in these ways, please do reach out to my office. 

For more information, see https://www.maine.gov/ag/immigration/