Maine’s attorney general is suing a religious leader in Westbrook, accusing him of defrauding immigrants by charging them for legal assistance on their immigration paperwork – often with detrimental mistakes – even though he was not qualified to offer such advice.

Attorney General Aaron Frey says Shonda Okonda, 48, has violated state and federal laws governing the “improper provision of legal services to an especially vulnerable population” since 2020.

Attorney General Aaron Frey speaks to the Judiciary Committee at the State House in Augusta on January 23. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“Okonda’s conduct is especially reprehensible because his victims are asylum seekers. Not only are asylum seekers particularly vulnerable to exploitation, but they are often afraid to come forward for fear of community or governmental retribution,” the suit states. “Okonda was able to use his power as a religious and community leader to lure asylum seekers into paying him hundreds of dollars for work that he was not authorized or sufficiently skilled to perform, with little fear of being reported.”

Okonda said in an interview that he was only trying to support people in his community when no else would.

“I didn’t do it in bad faith, I never told them I was a lawyer,” he said. “People were searching for help.”

The Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition says the case is representative of a larger issue in Maine – people taking advantage of immigrants and asylum seekers who are under pressure while facing the stress of legal filings that determine their future. The coalition and the attorney general are hoping to address these concerns in a new outreach campaign that warns immigrant communities about people who offer unauthorized immigration legal services.


“This project isn’t to target little Johnny, who’s reading the application for his parents and his parents are filling it out,” said Ruben Torres, the advocacy, communications and policy manager for the coalition. “This is more focused on protecting people and going after the big scammers, the people who are making a business and a livelihood from preying off people who are in this situation.”

The attorney general’s office also plans to launch a grant program that will offer free training to people who want to become Department of Justice-accredited legal representatives so they can help immigrants lawfully navigate the complicated legal processes.

According to Danna Hayes, the attorney general’s spokesperson, Okonda has failed to respond to the complaint, originally filed in December.


Frey alleges that Okonda harmed the asylum seeking community in a variety of ways.

He falsely advertised that an organization that he founded – the Christian Association for Peace, Leadership and Development – offered legal assistance, with “a team of lawyers” to walk immigrants through the process of filing for asylum, the lawsuit states. But according to the filing, there were no licensed attorneys associated with the association, and Okonda – who does not have any form of legal accreditation – was the only person to provide assistance with immigration paperwork.


Frey alleges that Okonda filled out immigration applications and affidavits with mistakes and incorrect information.

“At least some customers did not realize that Okonda had put incomplete, misleading or incorrect information on their applications until after Okonda had filed the applications,” the suit states. “In doing so, Okonda put his customers’ immigration cases at risk. … (His) ‘assistance’ has put his clients in danger of deportation because he has submitted applications with falsified information to federal agencies.”

Okonda did not deny that there might be mistakes in filings he assisted with. But some help is better than none, he asserted.

Okonda did not deny that he had collected money for that work. According to the suit, he pressured some customers to donate to Open House Church Ministries, and outright charged others, all of which went into his personal bank account, the state asserts.

But Okonda says that all of the money that was collected was through “offerings” to the church that would help it – and the work that Okonda was doing – endure.

“I know there are some mistakes, but it is not that I was fooling people to get money from them,” he said. “I spent more of my own money to help these people. How do you pay for the computer? For the office? For the church?”


There also were concerns about Okonda telling his customers to use the address of his Portland church, Open Door Church Ministries, as a primary address. The suit states that he failed to distribute mail in a timely manner and sometimes misplaced mail altogether. That put asylum seekers, who didn’t receive notice of interviews and hearings, at risk, the suit alleges. All in all, the suit states that over 100 filings or submissions to state and federal agencies for drivers’ license applications, immigration forms and work authorization forms listed Open Door Church Ministries’ mailing address.

Okonda said he was offering a solution for the many people who were staying in shelters without a primary address to list on applications or where they could receive mail.

The attorney general’s office identified at least 21 “customers” who have paid Okonda a total of $10,000.

The state is asking the courts to fine Okonda up to $10,000 for “each intentional violation,” order him to repay each of his victims for the “the ascertainable loss suffered,” bar him from establishing any nonprofit in Maine and from providing any assistance – legal or not – with immigration paperwork, and reimburse the AG’s office for the costs of the litigation.


This case is nothing new, said Torres, the coalition’s advocacy manager, though it has worsened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Community organizations in Maine work with members of the immigrant community who have long shared similar experiences of being scammed by someone claiming to be a legal representative.

“In terms of people taking advantage, it happens anytime there is a challenge, anytime you see a crisis,” said Mufalo Chitam, executive director at the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. “Our community is not immune to that.”

This fraud makes an already strenuous process even harder.

The Boston Asylum Office, which processes claims for refugees in Maine, granted asylum to only 11% of its applicants in 2021, according to a report by Maine legal aid organizations handling immigration reform.

Asylum applications can be rejected for a variety of reasons, and it’s impossible to say whether Okonda’s assistance was why some of the asylum seekers he worked with were not granted asylum.

“We understand that the approval rate is already low on a good day,” Torres said. “But (this fraud) really prevents the due process of the already very impacted U.S. immigration court system to do its job.


Hayes, the attorney general’s spokesperson, confirmed that one person was not able to receive a work visa in a timely manner because of Okonda’s conduct.


The attorney general’s office made the case public Tuesday along with an announcement about its partnership with the Maine Immigrant Rights’ Coalition. The two agencies are working together to educate the community about finding accredited legal representatives and staying alert for red flags.

The online resource, Protecting New Mainers from Immigration Scams, also gives people an opportunity to report immigration scams anonymously.

Oftentimes, these connections to fraudulent legal representatives are made by word of mouth – recommendations from someone else in the community, Torres said. The closeness of these communities makes taking action against fraud all the harder for fear that someone might face backlash or isolation.

The Protecting New Mainers from Immigration Scams can be found at

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