GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — Authorities in Gwinnett County say thousands of people could be at risk for deportation after a 60-year-old woman allegedly ran a DACA application scam on them.
Police say 60-year-old Melva Washington posed as an immigration attorney who promised she could help people stay in the country legally. But police say that was a lie.
On Feb. 6, Gwinnett County Police detectives got a call from a local immigration attorney reporting a DACA application scam being run from inside the Anointed Vision Church she ran.
DACA, stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an immigration policy that allows some individuals who entered the country as minors and remained here illegally, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit.
Shortly after receiving that call, a detective met with two victims who said Washington took their money but did not do anything to fix their immigration status. One of the victims also told police he discovered that several documents in his application were forged and contained false information.
Gwinnett County detectives said Washington advertised in the Hispanic community, claiming she could help people apply for DACA. She allegedly charged between $500 and $1000 per applicant, but then never delivered the help she promised. During the alleged scam, she also forged documents – including baptismal certificates, high school certificates and others – for no real reason, as many of the victims were actually eligible for DACA.
In addition to the immigration "help center," authorities said Washington ran a day care program and a tax preparation center. All of them were illegal. On top of that, police said during their surveillance of Washington's church, they never once saw a service.
Now, investigators said there could be hundreds, if not thousands, more people who don't even know they're victims.
"More than a thousand at this point. And this is just DACA applications," Det. Nermin Cultarevic told 11Alive.
Authorities arrested Washington Wednesday. She's now being held in the Gwinnett County Jail on charges of forgery, writing false statements and unauthorized practice of law.
11Alive's Ryan Kruger spoke to immigration attorney Charles Kuck, who helped blow the whistle on Washington, via video chat Thursday night. He called the 60-year-old a "fraud machine" who "needs to go to jail for a very long time."
"What happens to all these people who thought they were going to be able to stay here legally? How many people are gonna be deported," Kuck asked. "When people are deported or arrested it destroys their families. And that is absolutely gonna happen here."
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