By Nina Mohan
President Biden’s proposed immigration reforms could provide a pathway to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented immigrants, but the proposed changes also offer fresh opportunity for scammers who know how to exploit the complicated and sometimes confusing immigration process.
“Scammers do follow the headlines,” said Federal Trade Commission (FTC) attorney Emily Wu, adding that with new immigration legislation in the news, it’s the perfect time to approach potential victims.
Immigrants are often targeted because scammers know how to exploit their lack of familiarity with life in the United States, Wu said. They’re also less likely to report scams for fear of having to reveal personal information to the government and with the recent influx of migrants on the southern border also in the news, the FTC wants people to know it’s safe to report.
“We do know that people in certain situations may not want to reveal personal information to the government. But we do want to hear about scams people may be facing on the southern border and the workaround is that we have an anonymous reporting system,” Wu explained.
“We don’t ask questions about immigration status, and people can tell us as much or as little as they want. Reporting fraud helps the community, and there are versions of the site in both Spanish and English,” she said.
According to Wu, immigrants typically face three types of scams: form completion scams, government imposter scams and affinity scams, which take advantage of things familiar to an immigrant’s country of origin such as language, culture and laws.
Form completion scams attempt to charge people for U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) forms. Although there might be a fee to submit a completed application to the USCIS, one should never pay for blank government forms. They can be downloaded for free at USCIS.gov/forms or ordered by calling 1-800-870-3676.
Government imposter scams often take place on the Internet with scammers creating websites that feature government seals and American imagery such as the flag. But if it doesn’t have a “.gov” domain, it’s not official and can’t be trusted.
Affinity scams are often run by notarios—people who charge for legal help but who are not lawyers and who don’t have the authority to provide legal guidance. In Mexico and many Central and South American countries, notarios can provide legal services and might even be experienced lawyers.
In the United States, “notarios are not recognized or accredited and don’t have a legal license to help,” says Wu, “but they take advantage of the confusion about what a notario is and what they are allowed to do.
Misrepresenting legislation is a tactic frequently used by notarios.
“A scammer might say ‘there’s a new pathway to citizenship if you’re a certain type of person, a farmworker, a dreamer,’ but even if what they are saying is true, it’s not yet passed into law,” Wu explained. “By telling people they can take action based on a bill, you already know they are dishonest.”
A good way to avoid being scammed is to be sure the person you’re working with is authorized to provide legal services, Wu said.
People seeking assistance with the immigration process can contact the Department of Justice directly or can get help from accredited representatives, which are organizations approved by the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) to provide legal services and representation before the Department of Homeland Security, the EOIR and the Board of Immigration Appeals.
In Michigan, local immigration experts have reported scams related to Biden’s proposed immigration reforms, including one that claims to enroll people in “Biden’s amnesty plan.”
“Early in the Biden administration, we started to get calls from people asking us about the Biden amnesty program and attorneys who said they could help people sign up,” said Susan E. Reed, managing attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.
Although Biden did implement a 100-day moratorium on deportations his first day in office, there is no Biden amnesty program and no immigration reforms have been passed, Reed said. “There’s no reason to charge people money in advance to help them with programs that don’t yet exist.”
Reed noted that even legitimate attorneys might attempt to charge people for assistance with programs that don’t yet exist: “Some reputable attorneys will argue that it’s okay to offer [immigration services based on proposed legislation], but I don’t think it’s acceptable to take money for services that can’t be provided. Some people will call it a retainer, but I just don’t think it’s ethical,” she said.
Nina Mohan is a freelance writer for Ethnic Media Services.