An Elizabeth woman has been sentenced to 10 years in state prison for stealing approximately $100,000 from more than two dozen undocumented immigrants by making empty promises to help them obtain citizenship papers, acting Union County Prosecutor Grace H. Park announced Friday.
Maritza Chavez, 46, was sentenced before state Superior Court Judge Robert J. Mega, who heard statements from about a dozen victims in the case Friday. Chavez had pleaded guilty in January to two separate indictments containing a total of 26 counts of third-degree theft by deception, with the plea agreement stipulating that she repay restitution in an amount to be determined, according to Union County Assistant Prosecutor Ann Rubin, who prosecuted the case.
A five-month investigation by the prosecutor’s office’s Special Prosecutions Unit determined that Chavez represented herself as an attorney to clients and told them that she would file documents with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services on their behalf. She charged anywhere from $80 to $6,000 per client for what she described as legal services, which she was not trained to perform, according to interviews victims engaged in with prosecutor’s office Detective Johnny Ho.
Investigators found that Chavez would submit citizenship applications that were incomplete, improperly filled out, or filled out without a required fee. When the applications were eventually rejected and returned to her with a refund of the money submitted, she pocketed the funds.
Chavez operated a group called Worldwide Foundation to Rescue the Immigrant, or FMRI, at various addresses in Elizabeth for various times during at least the last six years; the addresses included a church rectory on East Jersey Street, a site on Jefferson Avenue, and a location on Routes 1&9.
The investigation ultimately found that when various victims called her office to inquire about the status of their applications, Chavez would fabricate explanations to hide the fact that applications had been rejected and that the money had been refunded to her. She was arrested in February 2012, approximately five months after the investigation was launched.