BOSTON — A Woonsocket, Rhode Island, woman was sentenced Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Worcester in connection with a scheme that defrauded dozens of immigrants of over $700,000.
The sentence resulted from an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Patria Zuniga, 53, was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman to 78 months in prison, three years of supervised release and ordered to pay restitution of $713,850. In January 2016, Zuniga pleaded guilty to eight counts of wire fraud.
According to court records from 2009 through 2012, Zuniga targeted immigrant victims presenting herself as either an immigration attorney or an employee of U.S. immigration services. Zuniga told her victims that she could assist them in lawfully obtaining permanent resident immigration status. The victims typically had no lawful status or temporary legal status in the United States. Zuniga’s services were offered for $8,000 to $14,000; however, after the victims made the payments, Zuniga extorted additional funds by, among other things, threatening to have them deported if they refused to pay. Victim payments were initially made in cash, but later in the scheme Zuniga accepted money via cash deposits made directly into designated bank accounts (including accounts owned by her daughters), money orders, and bank and Western Union wire transfers. In total, victims paid more $700,000 over the course of the three-year fraud scheme.
To further legitimize her scheme, Zuniga employed a variety of tools to create the appearance of legitimacy in front of the victims. For example, in order to prove that she could in fact deliver the promised immigration benefits, Zuniga showed her victims photocopies of immigration documents with their names and photographs on them, which she had forged. Zuniga also routinely arranged for victims to travel to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Offices in Boston purportedly to take receipt of the immigration documents. Upon arrival, victims waited for hours only to have Zuniga contact them and cancel the non-existent appointment.
During yesterday’s sentencing hearing, 17 of Zuniga’s victims addressed the Court directly – detailing the toll Zuniga’s fraud, extortion, and threats had on their lives. Many victims reported how, in the face of Zuniga’s threats of deportation, they handed over all the money they had and even borrowed money in order to make the payments to her.
Zuniga’s daughters, Alba Peña and Indranis Rocheford, have also been charged in connection with the fraud. They are scheduled for trial in August 2016.