Washington – Federal officials have a warning for immigrants considering too-good-to-true legal aid: The wrong help can hurt.
Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said Thursday the government is launching an initiative aimed at shutting down scammers posing as bona fide immigration attorneys or others who can help shepherd an immigration application through a complex system.
The initiative, Mayorkas said, is part education program aimed at immigrants looking to file for visas and other immigration benefits and part crackdown on people offering immigration legal services who aren't recognized by the government to do so.
"The primary goal is to provide immigrants with the information they need to make wise choices," Mayorkas said. And those unscrupulous fraudsters targeting immigrants are becoming a renewed target of federal civil authorities and law enforcement.
"If your actions violate federal criminal law, we will prosecute you, and if we can, we will put you in jail," said John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The nationwide effort will focus initially on seven cities where the problem of immigration fraud has been particularly troublesome: Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, Fresno, Calif., Los Angeles, New York, and San Antonio.
Authorities will be handing out pamphlets and urging immigrants to go to a new federal website for detailed information on how to contact legitimate immigration attorneys.
"We want to be sure we protect this very vulnerable immigrant community," said Denise Frazier, head of USCIS' Atlanta office. "We want people to be sure to know how to seek the appropriate immigration advice."
The initiative will also allow federal law enforcement access to information from the Federal Trade Commission's consumer fraud complaint database, making it easier for authorities to potentially spot scammers.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Tony West, who heads the Justice Department's civil division, said the effort was primarily targeting people who identify themselves as "notarios" or "notarios publicos" Spanish terms that often refer to lawyers in Latin America. Such scammers, he said, often will profess to be lawyers when they are not.
One of the stiffest challenges federal officials face is educating the immigrant community about the dangers of paying unlicensed people for help. The victims, officials said, often are trying their best to comply with the law.
And when immigrants are scammed they often wind up turning to illegal business, such as fake ID sellers, to stay in the country, said Brock Nicholson, the special agent in charge of Atlanta's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.
"They're out more money and then could be approached by even more nefarious individuals from the black market," he said.
West and Morton said immigrants often don't learn they have been scammed until their case is resolved. And countless fraud cases go unreported every year.
"Many victims of notario fraud are too afraid to come forward," West said. "They suffer in silence."
A notable exception, West said, was a U.S. military service member who hired a supposed immigration lawyer in the Los Angeles area to help his father with an immigration court hearing. It was only at the father's court date, West said, that the family learned they had been deceived, at the cost of $500. The suspect in the case, West said, had stolen the identity of a legitimate California attorney and has been sentenced to a decade in prison. West did not identify the victim in that scam.
While it's unclear exactly how many fraud cases are perpetrated every year, West said his office prosecutes about three or four annually. Morton said his office has completed seven fraud cases in the past year and another seven are in various stages of prosecution.
As the new focus on immigration fraud was being announced, authorities in Los Angeles said they arrested a man on suspicion of scamming would-be Mexican immigrants and filing bogus paperwork for businesses hoping to win temporary work visas for workers.
The U.S. attorney's office said Thursday Carlos Alberto Silva, 29, was arrested at his Canoga Park business by immigration agents.
Prosecutors say Silva submitted fraudulent immigration petitions from legitimate businesses looking for visas for unskilled immigrant workers and then charged would-be immigrants up to $4,000 to seek work visas.
Silva's attorney, Douglas McNabb, said Silva would plead not guilty.