Los Angeles is a metropolis of immigrants, but many of these newcomers are living in this country illegally. That’s what makes L.A. the unofficial capital of immigration fraud, where con artists play on people’s desperation to get residency papers so they can live in this country legally without fear of deportation.
Immigrant advocates such as those at L.A.’s Central American Refugee Center, or CARECEN, meet victims of fraud all the time. “It’s incredibly common, unfortunately. We estimate about a third to one-half of the individuals who come to seek legal assistance at CARECEN have a member of their family, or themselves, who have been victims of immigration fraud,” says Daniel Sharp, the legal director at CARECEN.
Immigration fraudsters include corrupt lawyers, notaries public and even a next-door neighbor or family friend. What unites them is their con, and it’s a simple one: offer the desperate undocumented immigrant the opportunity to stay in the country legally in exchange for money, sometimes lots of money.
Immigration fraud nearly destroyed the life of Maria Guitterez. Originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, Maria crossed the border illegally and settled in Los Angeles, searching, like so many other immigrants, for a better life. But Maria was desperate to get legal residency, especially after her children were born. That’s when she was approached by a family friend named Fidel Marquez.
Marquez told Maria that he had connections to immigration lawyers and could get her permission to live in the country. “The promise that he made constantly was you can be here legally, but with the condition that I pay every time he asked for money,” says Maria.
But the residency papers Marquez promised never appeared. He kept telling Maria to be patient and wait while demanding ever more money for his “services.” Maria, who worked in a variety of L.A. restaurant jobs as kitchen help, ended up giving Marquez $80,000 over ten years, essentially every extra penny she could spare. Why do it? Promises had turned to threats. “He would say if I didn’t pay the money, he knew where my children go to school, who they stay with,” says Maria.
But she finally became so desperate to find out what had happened to her applications for legal residency, applications Marquez had never filed in the first place, Maria went to the Los Angeles office of the pro bono legal aid clinic Public Counsel, mistakenly thinking it was the headquarters of federal immigration authorities. Maria had reached a point where she was willing to risk deportation in order to find out what had happened to all the money she had paid to Marquez over the years.
It was at Public Counsel that Maria met immigration lawyer Gina Amato Lough, who heard her story. “It was so convoluted and fantastical, I knew within 20 minutes that it was a fraud,” says Lough.
With the help of Public Counsel, the fraud committed against Maria was exposed. She can now reside legally in the United States on a U visa, a residency document granted to people who are victims of crimes. As for Marquez, he was ordered by a court to pay back the money he swindled out of Maria, but has vanished.
Immigration advocates say it too difficult for victims of immigration fraud to find help or report the crime once they’ve been conned. “Law enforcement isn’t really taking on the problem in a coordinated way,” says Daniel Sharp of CARECEN.
KCRW looked into how hard it is to report an incident of immigration fraud, calling help hotlines set up by both U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the California Attorney General’s office. In a ping pong game of calling, each office directed us to the other one to find help.
When we brought up our experience to federal immigration authorities, they promised to correct the problem. “If the system was not easy for you to navigate, that is on us to address. I will be following up on our mechanism of engagement,” says Maria Moleno, the Director of Public Service and Engagement with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Beyond reporting incidents of fraud, the federal government has started a public education campaign to warn people about the danger of immigration fraud and trusting people who promise a quick and easy fix path to residency documents in exchange for money. You can get information about that program, called The Wrong Help Can Hurt
As for Maria, she’s now trying to raise her children and piece together her life after so many years of being a victim. Knowing now that there are many others out there like her, she offers this advice to immigrants who suspect they’re getting conned. “You don’t have to be afraid like I was,” she says. “People might threaten you, but you have to confront them.”