With a gun strapped to his hip and a hat emblazoned with “ICE,” Tommie Rand Pierce told hundreds of immigrants in North Carolina that, for a fee, he could get them the legal status they wanted.
But federal authorities, notified of Pierce’s dealing by an attorney with the N.C. Justice Center, now think Pierce was a fraud who took advantage of people looking for a way to stay in the United States.
The Raleigh man was arrested last week in Utah on charges of impersonating an immigration agent and defrauding immigrants.
A federal judge in Utah released Pierce, 68, on his own recognizance and ordered him to make contact with prosecutors in the U.S. District Eastern District of North Carolina within a week. No hearings have been scheduled in the case.
Federal agents think Pierce, from December 2007 to now, charged immigrants seeking help in obtaining legal status up to $2,000 to $5,000, according to a 25-page affidavit filed by Christopher Brant, a special agent with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Pierce posed as an ICE agent, wearing a gun and hats or shirts with “ICE” stamped on them.
In all, they think he defrauded 265 immigrants by filing false claims, most of which resulted in their deportation orders because the applicants had either overstayed visas or came to the United States through improper channels, making them ineligible for immigration relief. Most of the claims happened in North Carolina, but Pierce and his associates also filed fallen claims for immigrants living in Washington, Virginia, Indiana, Texas, California, Maryland and Tennessee, according to Brant’s affidavit.
He held meetings with his clients at his home in Raleigh, as well as Bojangles’ and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants.
Pierce’s actions were first reported back in 2008, by Paola Jaramillo of La Conexion, a Spanish-language paper based in Raleigh. Jaramillo’s investigation (available in PDF here) found that Pierce, of Guatemalan roots, defrauded a Raleigh church community looking to help Latino parishioners as well as owners of a local air conditioner company.
A federal investigation didn’t begin until May 2010, when Kate Woomer-Deters, an attorney with the N.C. Justice Center, called federal officials to report Pierce’s actions, according to Brant’s affidavits. (Full disclosure: N.C. Policy Watch is a project organized underneath the N.C. Justice Center)
Posing as an agent
Pierce went to great lengths to keep up the appearance that he was a federal immigration agent.
“’I am the one you do not want to see knock on your door,’” Pierce told one informant who was wearing a wiretap.
Federal court records say he drove a truck with police-style lights on it, and carried a badge. He often wore shirts or hats with “ICE” printed on it, and would tell immigrants that he worked to help immigrants get legal status during the day, and arrested people at night.
He told immigrants he purported to be helping he would call in favors to helped immigrants he knew to be good people and get the legal status they wanted, according to court documents.
But he also warned his clients that there would be payback if they didn’t pay him. One woman who later spoke with ICE agents about Pierce said he warned her that once he wasn’t paid and “took a bus the female’s neighborhood and deported everyone living there,” according to the criminal complaint.
But nearly all of the 265 he intervened on behalf of weren’t entitled to relief, because they had entered the United States by overstaying tourist visas or crossed the border undetected. Many, after Pierce filed applications at a Charlotte immigration office, had deportation orders issued against them.
Robin Zier, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern Distinct of North Carolina, declined to say what would happen to the immigrants defrauded by Pierce.
“I can’t comment on that,” Zier said.
Hearings for Pierce’s criminal proceedings could be held as early as next week, at the federal courthouse in downtown Raleigh.
Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919)861-1463 or firstname.lastname@example.org.