The leader of a Virginia organization for Latino immigrants was found guilty of fraud Thursday after a jury found that she had cheated two clients out of several thousand dollars while posing as a licensed attorney.
A Fairfax County jury recommended that Rose Sanchez-Canete, 48, serve two years in jail and pay $5,000 in fines for falsely promising to help two immigrants in the country illegally obtain legal status.
The trial, which began Monday, tapped into a growing problem with immigration fraud nationwide as people from Latin America, Asia and Africa seek to gain U.S. asylum or other forms of legal status by turning to unscrupulous notaries public, tax preparers and nonprofit organizations that promise affordable and fast results.
During the past three years, about 150 people in the Washington area have said they were tricked out of fees by a person not licensed to practice law or otherwise accredited to appear in immigration courts, said Anne Schaufele, an attorney with the Ayuda nonprofit group who works to prevent such cases of “notario fraud.”
Officials at the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review — which oversees the nation’s 58 immigration courts — said they have received 400 fraud complaints since 2012.
Sanchez-Canete is director of the Latino Federation of Tenants Organization in Alexandria (LAFEOTA), an organization that started in the 1980s to help Latino immigrants with landlord-tenant disputes. Since 1996, the organization has been investigated 10 times by the Virginia State Bar for suspected immigration fraud.
On Thursday, Sanchez-Canete was found guilty of promising two of her clients green cards when both were in the country illegally and had no chance of gaining legal status.
The jury found her not guilty of another felony fraud charge involving a third client.
In each of the cases in which she was convicted, Sanchez-Canete charged several thousand dollars in fees for her services, according to the office of Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh.
“This deserves years in jail, multiple years,” Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Rachel Roberts told the jury, accusing Sanchez-Canete of preying on the hope of immigrant clients who are desperate to gain legal status in the United States.
Several of Sanchez-Canete’s supporters testified on her behalf, arguing that the dispute was the result of confusion by LAFEOTA clients.
They characterized Sanchez-Canete as an impassioned advocate for Latino immigrants who worked weekends to help people.
“At no point has she said to me that she was an attorney,” said Rafael Alberto Nunez, who claimed that Sanchez-Canete helped him gain legal residency in 2010, and then his U.S. citizenship. “I’ve never had a problem with her. Every time I’ve spoken with her she’s given me the truth.”
Ricardo Ramos, a friend of Sanchez-Canete’s for 21 years, said she has worked tirelessly to help her community.
“She’s always working; that’s the thing,” he said. “We’ve always tried to get her to have a social life.”
During the sentencing Thursday, Sanchez-Canete stared straight ahead as her jail sentence was read out by a courthouse clerk.
Afterward, she retreated into a witness room with her friends and loudly sobbed.