Feds: Paralegal told clients to fake abuse claims
A former South Jersey paralegal appeared in court Wednesday to face charges she allegedly urged clients to bolster bogus immigration petitions with fake spousal abuse claims.
Maria James, 68, worked from 2002 through June 2011 at law offices in Brigantine and Cherry Hill.
As she prepared clients' petitions for permanent U.S. residency, James allegedly encouraged the applicants to claim they were battered. Prosecutors said the "scheme" was a bid to both help clients remain in the country and to profit from the legal fees they paid.
James would allegedly support the abuse claims with doctored documents, including photographs of “wounds” clients purportedly suffered at the hands of their spouses. In reality, prosecutors said, James used makeup or ketchup to fake the injuries.
Twenty-two of James’ former clients have admitted the immigration petitions James prepared on their behalf contained false or fraudulent information, court documents state.
Prosecutors said some of the clients admitted their abuse claims were based on entirely fraudulent marriages. Others allegedly asserted that James falsely represented herself as an attorney.
James allegedly referred clients to a Cherry Hill psychologist for assessments supporting their petitions. Authorities said the evaluations were conducted despite the fact most of the clients spoke very little English, while the doctor spoke very little Spanish.
James is further accused of arranging two marriages – one in 2004 and the other in 2006 – between clients and U.S. citizens so the clients could petition for permanent residency.
Prosecutors said she instructed some clients to take “happy marriage photos” of themselves and their spouses to make their relationships look authentic. Authorities said many of them actually married solely to obtain immigration benefits.
James was released Wednesday on $50,000 bond. She is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. If convicted, she faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.