After celebrating recent immigration reform advocates warn about fraud

pieChart_jpg (1)By Rachel White

President Barack Obama’s executive action to remove the threat of deportation from about 5 million undocumented immigrants was greeted with celebration by immigrant communities across the country and in Chicago. But now immigration advocates are worried about something else: fraud.

Immigrant advocates are concerned that undocumented immigrants eager to take advantage of Obama’s new policy will fall prey to scam artists who are looking for easy targets. In Hispanic neighborhoods such individuals offer their services as “notarios,” people who are authorized to perform some legal functions, including drawing up contracts or certifying contracts, deeds or other documents.

Some notarios have routinely victimized immigrants in Chicago by charging them high fees to fill out fake documents that will get them nowhere, according to Ian Pajer-Rogers, digital communications manager for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

To combat such fraud, the coalition has been warning immigrants in Illinois that there is nothing to apply for right now and no paperwork to fill out yet in order to attain the legal status Obama promised. That will happen sometime in 2015.

“Telling people to stay away from ‘notarios’ who have taken advantage of the immigrant community in the past,” is very important,” Pajer-Rogers said.

Understanding what options are available isn’t the only problem ICIRR warns immigrants about. “We’re making sure we’re accurately telling people who’s qualified,” he said.

Immigrant advocacy organizations have good reason to worry. The City of Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection announced in May that 30 Chicago businesses were found to be violating business laws and deceiving immigrant families. The bust was a part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s effort to protect immigrant consumers from rapacious businesses.

“Preventing fraudulent immigration assistance providers from taking advantage of vulnerable consumers trying to navigate the naturalization process is a priority and a top commit[ment] for me,” the mayor said in a release. “This sting operation sends a clear message to bad actors that the city is ready to enforce the law and will not tolerate anyone…getting ripped off.”

The investigation targeted 31 immigration service providers in the Chicago area and found that 30 of those businesses were overcharging customers, falsely advertising licensed attorneys and providing legal advice they were not qualified to offer.

Miscommunication and misunderstandings are frequently a problem when communicating with immigrants who may not speak or read English. That makes them dependent on others to translate information for them, immigration advocates say.

Such problems likely explain in part why only 55 percent of those who met the criteria to receive a stay of deportation signed up for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program since it was announced in 2012, according to a study conducted by the Migration Policy Institute this year. The program allows people who were brought to the U.S. illegally before the age of 16 to avoid deportation and receive a renewable two-year work permit.

While immigration advocates are worried about fraud, they also are trying to make sure that everyone eligible for Obama’s latest reprieve will take advantage of it.

Under the president’s executive action, millions of undocumented immigrants will be eligible to apply for temporary legal status. Immigrant advocacy groups consider themselves responsible for educating immigrants about whether or not they qualify under the new program and how to go about applying.

“The sheer number of people [who are eligible to apply] is the biggest challenge,” said Pajer-Rogers.

In 2012, there were an estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, according to a 2014 report conducted by Pew Research. Many of those undocumented immigrants live in Illinois and will be looking to advocacy groups like ICIRR for information. According to a report published by the Migration Policy Institute, Illinois is the fourth most immigrant-populated state.

The magnitude of the immigrant community is part of what makes them a focal point for scam artists across the country.

Virginia Chavez is one of the 5 million shielded from deportation under the new immigration policy. She’s lived in Chicago for 18 years with her son, daughter and husband — all three have legal status — in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.

She and her husband both work. To make ends meet she has to work two jobs. Still, she said she feels “very blessed” to be eligible to apply and join the rest of her family living legally in the United States.

In May 2012, the Chicago’s City Council passed the Mayor’s licensing reform ordinance. This ordinance requires that immigration assistance providers display specific disclosures regarding cost and legal issues in multiple languages.

“[Immigrants] are just one group of consumers we vigorously protect,” said Jeffrey Lewelling, first deputy director of the city’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection department.

The BACP recommends avoiding anyone who claims to have special influence with the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement or other government agencies — especially if those individuals say that legal status can be arranged for additional money.