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Officials fear new wave of immigration fraud

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

G. Thaddeus Gembacz, a retired Los Angeles immigration judge, saw the scam play out in his courtroom countless times.

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Law enforcement officials are concerned that unwary immigrants may targeted in a new wave of fraud.

An immigrant would appear seeking asylum after having paid hundreds or even thousands of dollars to a third party for assistance in filling out the paperwork. But there were little or no facts to support the asylum case.

“All the form did was get the person thrown into immigration court,” he said. “From the shadows to the fire.”  

With possible changes to immigration laws on the horizon, Gembacz and law enforcement officials in California are concerned about a spike in that type of fraud. The State Bar organized a summit last month to bring together many of the federal, state and local agencies who are trying to combat the problem.

Immigration is one area where non-attorneys are allowed to assist consumers in completing forms, translating documents and submitting forms. But dishonest immigration consultants charge consumers for forms they can get for free and make false promises that extra fees will give the immigrant a leg up in the process, officials said at the summit. Some identify themselves as “notarios,” which, unlike notaries in the United States, are allowed to practice law in some Latin American countries.

Immigrants may fall for dishonest pitches because they come from countries where bribery is common and people are vulnerable, said Rigo Reyes, chief investigator at the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs.

As the U.S. Congress starts to take up the issue of immigration reform, authorities said they expect more scammers to try to take advantage of immigrants’ strong desire to become American citizens.

“Uncertainty draws out the unscrupulous who prey upon the uninformed, the misinformed and the frightened,” Gembacz said at the summit. “The level and extent of fraud is limited only by the imagination of the perpetrators.”

As a judge, Gembacz said he had little authority to intervene when he noticed consumers being victimized.

The State Bar can take complaints about attorneys who are licensed in California, but the bar does not have jurisdiction over non-attorney immigration consultants, Chief Trial Counsel Jayne Kim said. Law enforcement agencies can prosecute these individuals for crimes, including the unauthorized practice of law and theft.

Unfortunately, much of the fraud goes unreported because immigrants are distrustful of police and fear any contact could lead to deportation, officials said.

Last year, when the federal government eased the immigration rules for some of those who were brought to the United States as children, Attorney General Kamala Harris warned consumers about potential scams. 

Los Angeles County, home to many immigrant communities, is unique in having its own Department of Consumer Affairs. Reyes said among the 300,000 calls received per year, immigration fraud is one of the top 10 most common complaints.

The Federal Trade Commission also accepts complaints and enters them in a secure online database used by law enforcement worldwide.

The U.S. Department of Justice has made combating notario fraud a top priority, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rozella Oliver said. But the challenge is getting victims to report fraud. Her agency can’t promise immigrants a path to citizenship in exchange for their cooperation.

Oliver applauded the agencies for starting the dialog. “We are the only ones who can stand up against this new wave of fraud,” she said.