Thursday, November 20, 2008

Combatting Immigration Provider Fraud

From the Immigrant Legal Resource Center:

Immigrants fall prey to fraudulent immigration providers

As immigration enforcement activities increase and the immigration debate across the country continues, misinformation and fear have compelled many to hastily seek legal status.  This has created opportunities for unscrupulous immigration service providers to take advantage of people’s hopes and fears, and exact exorbitant fees from immigrants for questionable naturalization and permanent residency schemes.  The consequences are often dire and irreversible.   

What follows is a sadly common story: An immigrant family with U.S.-born children that has been here over ten years hears about “the ten-year benefit,” which they are told will allow the parents to acquire work permits, a possible first step to legalizing their immigration status. They jump at the chance, and pay thousands of dollars to a notario, which in Latin America implies that the person is a licensed attorney.  In the United States a notario means a notary public, who is only authorized to verify signatures and has no legal training. The purported lawyer, or notario, explains that the process is expensive and complicated but that legalization is assured because of the time they have lived here and the citizenship of their children.  In some cases, unscrupulous licensed attorneys are also involved in these operations, making the process of finding competent, honest legal services even more difficult for an immigrant consumer.

The family signs complicated legal papers in English that they do not understand and trusts the notario with their documents. Eventually, they appear in court before an immigration judge but not accompanied by their notario, whom they now learn cannot represent clients in court. The notario sends his lawyer instead, who explains nothing about the proceedings or background and may have even met the immigrant family for the first time in open court. Confused by the system but led to believe that all is in order, the parents do receive their work permits – only to receive a summons to go before an immigration judge again a year later. Even though their U.S. citizen children know nothing about life in the family’s country of origin, after receiving their work permits, and after following what they thought was sound legal advice, the judge deports the parents with no opportunity to return to the United States. With no other options, their minor children accompany their parents and leave behind their friends, education, and community to live in a country they have never known. Meanwhile, the notario keeps the thousands of dollars they paid him and goes on to defraud more hard working immigrants.

What went wrong?

What the notario did not explain is that in order to obtain work permits for them, he filed asylum applications that lacked merit.  Once an adjudicator reviews the asylum application and denies it as lacking merit, the family is automatically referred to an immigration judge for removal proceedings.  Notarios knowingly file fraudulent asylum applications expecting that the applications will be denied so that the family can apply for a form of relief called “cancellation of removal” before an immigration judge – buying them another year in the country. This is a blatant misuse of the asylum process followed by a legal long shot. 

Cancellation of removal exists to provide legal immigration status in cases where the applicant can show that his or her U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident parent, spouse or minor child, would suffer “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” if the applicant were not permitted to remain in the United States.  An example of the kind of hardship required might be a U.S.-born child with a debilitating medical condition that would not be possible to treat in the family’s country of origin.  The so-called “ordinary” hardship to a U.S. citizen child of having to move to a country that he does not know, where he may not speak, read or write the language, and that has a lower standard of living than the United States is not usually considered sufficient to win cancellation of removal and permanent residence status. 

Unfortunately, when these schemes fail, victims lose more than large sums of money. Fraudulent legal service providers permanently jeopardize their victims’ ability to stay in the United States. Many cases lead directly to deportation. Other immigrants permanently lose the means to immigrate legally in the future, even those for whom legal channels were open before they became victims of fraud, and even in cases where it is obvious they were preyed upon by an unscrupulous immigration service provider. The legal and financial consequences are severe for notarios and lawyers who commit fraud.  However, immigrants typically exhaust their resources in the process of trying to fight their imminent removal and have little left to seek redress from their defrauders. Once they are deported, participating in investigations and prosecutions becomes virtually impossible.

Families have been torn apart, individuals living in the United States for many years have been forced to leave the only home they know, and entire communities are confused about whom to trust and how to navigate the extremely complicated legal process of obtaining legal status. There have been thousands of immigration fraud victims.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit alone sees hundreds of cases each month involving immigrants who have fallen prey to the same schemes by notarios or unscrupulous attorneys. Sadly, the common end to many of these court cases is a family being torn apart or deported.

The ILRC helps immigrants fight misinformation and fraud

In order to communicate complicated information about scams by fraudulent immigration service providers, empower immigrants to help themselves and their communities, and educate them on legal pathways to permanent residency status and eventual citizenship, the ILRC produced an Anti-Fraud Comic Book in Chinese, English and Spanish. This resource tells the true stories of people who fell prey to four of the most common scams by fraudulent immigration service providers, including the “ten-year benefit” described above, and the consequences they face. It also outlines what to do if one is a victim of provider fraud, how to identify and avoid potentially fraudulent providers, and where to access vetted legal services. The comic book was written so that local resources, other state’s laws, and remedies for victims of fraud can be inserted easily, should the ILRC have the opportunity to expand the project beyond California. 

To coincide with the release of the comic books, the ILRC coordinated a mass bus advertising campaign in San Francisco and eight other Bay Area counties. Each ad provides information in Chinese, English and Spanish on provider fraud, and contact information for trustworthy legal service and social service providers who can help people with their immigration questions. Every bus in the city of San Francisco carried these posters, as well as 1,600 buses in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano and Sonoma Counties.

The ILRC also conducts trainings and community meetings, attended by thousands of immigrants, to educate and empower immigrants on recognizing and fighting immigration provider fraud. Additionally, we undertake significant media work through press events and have held numerous press conferences on this issue already. They were held variously in English, Spanish, and Asian languages commonly spoken in the Bay Area, and warned the public of the dangers of immigration fraud. Since this project’s inception, we have provided expert testimony on an immigration fraud prosecution in the case of People v. Ramon Rodriguez in Sonoma County, which resulted in a conviction against a fraudulent immigration provider. We also provided expert testimony in the State Bar Court trial of an attorney, who resigned from the State Bar of California with fraud charges pending against him, and gave a presentation to State Bar attorneys and investigators on immigration law, the prevalence of fraud, and the most common forms of immigration provider fraud.

Opportunities to prevent immigration provider fraud

The ILRC is proud of the success of the project so far and very excited about the possibility of expanding it beyond the San Francisco Bay Area. We are looking for partner organizations to replicate the Anti-Fraud Comic Book and the bus ad campaign around the state of California. Our strategy is to roll out this program by engaging local community organizations and funding partners, with the goal of empowering and educating immigrant communities to support themselves and protect each other from the devastation of immigration provider fraud. Soon we hope to work with organizations and community groups from across the country to modify the comic books with legal information and regional resources specific to the areas our national partners serve.

Please do not hesitate to contact us if you are interested in participating in this project, or if you have further questions about combating immigration provider fraud. Executive Director Eric Cohen is available at any time to discuss the campaign against immigration service provider fraud and the other programs of the ILRC. He can be contacted at ecohen@ilrc.org., or by telephone at (415) 255-9499 ext. 264. We look forward to hearing from you soon.

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