A state judge recently ordered a Woburn attorney to pay $240,000 for filing false asylum claims on behalf of unknowing Brazilian immigrants in what Attorney General Maura Healey’s office calls the first decision of its kind.
The AG’s office said the state’s consumer protection law has likely never before been used to hold an immigration attorney accountable for asylum scams.
On March 23, Middlesex Superior Court Judge Christopher Barry Smith found attorney George Maroun, Jr. purposefully misled dozens of Brazilian immigrants seeking help with work authorization and green cards by instead filing fraudulent asylum claims on their behalf without their consent. Filing asylum claims allowed Maroun to get clients short-term tangible items like work authorizations and social security numbers, while racking up additional fees for his own use.
“This attorney’s business model targeted and exploited immigrants looking for legal help and made a profit at their expense, while also putting them at risk of deportation,” Healey said in a statement. “This was a hard-fought case by my office, and we are pleased to secure restitution and achieve accountability for those harmed by these illegal practices.”
The order follows a civil lawsuit filed by Healey’s office in 2018 alleging that Maroun violated the state’s Consumer Protection Act with his actions.
In a 2019 affidavit to the court, Maroun said he “vehemently denied the defamatory statement” that he violated the law for financial gains. Maroun could not be reached for comment by email or several numbers listed for him in public records.
Maroun, who didn’t speak Brazilian Portuguese, asked his staff who did to reel in potential clients, requiring them to sign an English-only fee agreement and pay between $4,000 and $30,000, with several thousand due up front.
His office promised work authorization, driver’s licenses and other benefits, without explaining how that would be achieved. Clients were told Maroun would “take care of everything, and they had nothing to worry about,” according to the judge’s order.
Maroun asked clients to sign a blank page with their name on it. He later attached those signatures to asylum applications, which he never showed to clients or obtained consent for, according to court documents.
The move had enormous consequences on the immigrants, nine of whom testified at a 12-day trial in Smith’s court. Most were undocumented and not on the radar of immigration authorities, but when Maroun filed those applications, he automatically outed them. If an asylum application is denied, the immigrant is put into deportation proceedings.
Maroun and his employees also fabricated affidavits and details about the immigrants’ pasts that set the asylum cases up to fail.
“He did this because it was a really easy way to make a lot of money. We allege that he was running this scam to enrich himself, and he did it without the knowledge of his clients,” said Samantha Shusterman, one of the assistant attorneys general on the case. “Then we allege that he threatened his clients with deportation to keep them paying and the people that testified at trial, and expressed quite clearly to the court their deep fear and concern with these threats made by Maroun.”
At first, his clients thought they were being helped. The federal government issues work authorization and a social security number when someone applies for asylum, so Maroun was able to give them something concrete — though the suit alleged he sometimes asked for extra money before forking them over.
But then he would disappear. Maroun would have employees call clients before court dates and request payment and threaten that he would not go to court or drop their case if they didn’t pay up, according to court filings.
The clients who testified in the case all severed their relationships with Maroun upon finding out he filed for asylum without their knowledge, and hired other attorneys to deal with the fallout.
“I infer that Maroun filed asylum applications for dozens more clients who were similarly situated, and had no interactions with immigration enforcements before,” Smith wrote in his order.
In one example spelled out in the judge’s ruling, Julio Ramos heard about Maroun’s services through a radio program. He met with Maroun and a legal assistant who said the immigration process could take “two to four years and then he would get a green card,” and before that, Ramos could obtain a driver’s license and social security number.
Ramos signed a document in English, which he couldn’t read, that made numeric references to provisions of law that address asylum applications, but Ramos was given no explanation of what the document meant. Ramos was charged $16,000, and gave $2,000 cash as downpayment, according to court documents.
He also signed an affidavit in English, which he says Maroun and Harris didn’t translate, that included incorrect information about his Brazilian background. When Ramos later asked Maroun for a copy of the documents, he was charged $5,000 for them. He learned Maroun filed for asylum on his behalf when he met with a legal services attorney to prepare taxes.
“When Ramos learned Maroun had filed an asylum application and that removal proceedings could result, he cried and felt shock and fear,” the judge wrote.
Maroun submitted immigration-related petitions and applications on behalf of more than 1,000 residents in Eastern Massachusetts since 2013, many of whom are Brazilian and speak limited English.
Maroun was ordered to pay $160,000 in civil penalties and $81,800 to affected clients. He has been banned from representing new clients, collecting legal fees or filing immigration applications without explaining legal processes and obtaining consent for those. It is up to the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers and the Supreme Judicial Court to decide whether his ability to practice law should be impacted.
Healey’s office said the asylum scheme is a very popular practice in immigration law.
Shusterman said the case should “alert other attorneys in the Commonwealth who may be engaging in these sorts of practices that, hey, it’s against the law and you face not only liability from your clients that can sue you directly for violating their rights under the consumer protection statute, by engaging in this conduct. But you also may face scrutiny and serious action by the state.”
Maroun, who represented himself at trial, has filed an appeal.