With new state immigration laws going into effect in 2014, authorities are warning of fraudulent lawyers and others looking to take advantage of immigrants seeking help filling out documents.
Starting January 1, the state will be ramping up efforts to publicize the eligibility guidelines for undocumented immigrants seeking to obtain driver’s licenses. Also law enforcement officers in California will not be allowed to detain someone just for living in the country illegally.
The Los Angeles Police Department has held community forums in the past few months in anticipation of a potential increase in immigration fraud crimes as the new state laws kick in.
The way it works is fraudulent lawyers or “notarios” offer to prepare license applications or immigration papers for a fee. But the applications are done incorrectly or not at all, said Lt. Al Labrada, a community outreach liaison for LAPD police Chief Charlie Beck.
“They’ll set up shop in a community and they’ll defraud several people, if not hundreds of people,” Labrada said. “Then they’ll pack up and move.”
The LAPD has held forums in South L.A. and the Valley to warn immigrants and steer them towards free legal services from non-profits. More are expected in 2014 in other communities with a large immigrant population, like Koreatown.
Besides helping, Labrada acknowledges the LAPD also hopes to improve relations with Latinos and other immigrant communities in Los Angeles.
“There’s always been a perception that the LAPD is an extension of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) – but we’re not,” Labrada said.
Three months ago, LAPD held a Latino community meeting in the Wilshire area where there were more officers with guns than neighbors with issues. Only nine residents showed up.
LAPD has found that the scams are not only limited to immigration issues. Labrada said one man told police he lost about $40,000 to a church pastor who told the man he would invest the money in a business venture in Mexico.
“There’s a lot of confidence in a clergy member,” Labrada said. “So we have to be cautious that fraud can exist on some level there.”
Once money like that crosses borders, local police have to steer the victims toward federal authorities, which can be intimidating for undocumented immigrants.
Labrada admits the police need to do a better job reaching the immigrant community before the fraudulent scammers do.