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Los Angeles County officials have received reports of individuals charging immigrants money to be put on a list so they can be at "the front of the line" for immigration reform, although Congress has not approved an immigration overhaul and may not this year. (File photo: Immigrants wait for their citizenship interviews at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in New York).
Even before the Senate announced plans for a comprehensive immigration reform bill in January, scam artists were already using the mere possibility of a bill as a way of making a buck.
The reports began trickling in about six months ago to the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs, said department president Rigo Reyes.
"Some of the scams concern fraudulent individuals asking consumers to sign up to get on a list, so they can get to the front of the line when immigration reform takes place" said Reyes, who has heard from agencies that work with immigrants and other community groups. "As we know, there is no immigration reform. Nobody knows if we are going to get any reform at all. Yet these individuals are already collecting money."
He said some people are being asked to pay as much as $1,000 or $1,500 to be placed on a list for a benefit that doesn't yet exist.
It's just the latest in a long tradition of scams perpetrated by unscrupulous immigration consultants, notaries and others who take advantage of people who are unfamiliar with the legal system.
The agency tries to shut down the swindlers and refer them for prosecution. But people who are in the country illegally are reluctant to report being scammed. Reyes said hundreds, if not thousands of people, are victimized each year. But Reyes said he receives only about 75 complaints a year from those who are willing to step forward. Some scam victims hold onto hope long after they suspect there is a problem - and continue paying.
"We get consumers who come to us 10 years later to report that they were ripped off," Reyes said. "We want consumers first of all to not go to these places. And secondly, if they suspect after they go to a place that there is something is wrong, to let us know right away, because the sooner they come, the easier it is for us to try to get them some help."
Immigration scammers adapt their pitch to the latest proposal or policy. They operate within the immigrant community networks that many newcomers rely on.
This is how Maria was taken. She's a 47-year-old immigrant from Mexico who arrived in 1986. She didn't want her last name used because she is in the U.S. illegally.
"I had a friend at work, and she told me she knew someone could set me up with a work permit," she said.
Several years ago, Maria took her friend's advice and visited a notary, or notario. She thought she was working with a lawyer: In much of Latin America, a notario is a specialized type of attorney, but in the U.S. notaries don't provide legal advice. Some capitalize on that confusion.
He told Maria that he could get her a work permit. She signed a few forms and paid him $2,800 she'd saved and borrowed. Her work permit did arrive, but a year or so later in an interview with an immigration officer, she got her first hint that something was wrong.
"The official asked me if I had been persecuted, or if I had any problems with race or religion, or if I was afraid of something," Maria said. "I said no, and that I didn't know why he was asking me this. He said, here you have an application for political asylum."
This is what Maria had unknowingly signed, falling for a common ruse. Asylum applicants can get temporary work permits, but if they can't prove their case, they can end up in a worse place than they started: facing deportation, like Maria is now.
Nora Phillips, a staff attorney with the Central American Resource Center, is trying to help Maria. The agency provides low-cost legal services, and sees many immigrants whose cases are botched by unscrupulous immigration consultants.
"None of the risk is explained," Phillips said. "There is absolutely zero informed consent in this process. People think they are just applying for a work permit, and they end up with a deportation order. And it sounds like a crazy story, but this happens all the time, every day."
Qualified attorneys are often too expensive for low-wage earners, and it's hard for immigrants to tell which low-cost providers are honest and which are scams. But there are ways to check. The federal Department of Justice provides a list of providers accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals who provide free legal services. It also lists practitioners who have been disciplined.
For those who suspect they have been scammed, the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs allows consumers to file complaints online in English and Spanish.