(Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
An Indianapolis pastor appeared in court on Tuesday after being arrested last week for posing as an immigration attorney and taking payments worth thousands of dollars from Latino families for services he did not render.
Jorge Rodrigo Lopez of Iglesia De Cristo Nuevo was arrested after a nearly yearlong investigation that found he had swindled money from individuals involved in federal immigration cases and now he is being charged with corrupt business influence, four counts of forgery and five counts of theft, and faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted.
According to court documents, Lopez allegedly accepted over $13,000 in cash from friends and family members that intended to pay bonds for three individuals that were being held in custody by the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement at a detention center in Chicago, Ill.
"They would give him money to bond them out. In every case, he did not bond them out, and took their money. Sometimes he would refund the money, and when refunding that money, keep some of it and give a forged document and say, 'Here is the work I've done for you,'" said Marion County Deputy Prosecutor Daniel Harrison, reports an Indianapolis ABC affiliate, RTV6.
A fourth victim allegedly paid Lopez to intervene in the deportation of her husband but he refused to refund the money after he was deported three days later, and instead told her that it had been paid to the immigration office.
In addition, Lopez accepted cash from an undercover officer to remove an immigration hold on an individual detained in the Marion County Jail, assuring that the individual would be released on bond the next day. However, that individual had already been transported a week earlier to another detention facility.
The Hispanic families involved trusted Lopez as a minister to handle their cases which is a common mistake made by Latinos who are new to the U.S. and are unaware of the culture and legal system.
"Many of our families face difficult complex legal issues related to their legal status such as deportation and are vulnerable to those who promise a quick legal solution or to the answer they want to hear," Maria Acevedo Davis told The Christian Post, president and CEO of La Plaza, a nonprofit organization that provides services and resources to the Latino community in Central Indiana.
Oftentimes, Hispanic families seeking immigration help for other relatives are undocumented themselves and tend to fear legal help from actual lawyers in order to avoid possible repercussion. Davis says other times they just do not have an understanding of who is licensed to render legal services.
"Some of our families do not understand that a notary public is not a lawyer and that a law degree from another country does not qualify someone to be a lawyer in the United States," said Davis. "Very often we help our families understand the legal system in the U.S. and steer them towards established trusted legal professionals in the community."
Although they are able to receive the proper legal counsel they seek, the most lasting effect for the families is the money that they thought they had invested but ended up losing even though court documents show that Lopez returned a portion of some of the money he received to a few of his victims.
"Regrettably, our families are not able to recover their funds. A silver lining in these situations is that some of our families can apply for a U visa as a victim of a crime," Davis said.
The purpose of the U visa is to give victims of certain crimes temporary legal status and work eligibility in the U.S. and although it is not guaranteed, Lopez' victims could possibly apply for it if they meet the requirements.
As for Lopez, who is also accused of depositing the money he received into an account under the church's name, is awaiting a pretrial hearing scheduled for Oct. 8 at Marion County Superior Court in Indianapolis.