By Joseph A. Mann Jr., FloridaBulldog.org
Infamous as the setting for many cases of high-profile financial fraud and chicanery, South Florida is also home to a relatively unknown scam that targets the region’s large immigrant population, bilking many of them for thousands of dollars for “expert” immigration services that are never delivered, a Florida Bulldog investigation has found.
The victims are mostly legal and undocumented immigrants from Latin America and Haiti, typically people with limited skills and little or no knowledge of English. Some immigrants from other parts of the world arriving in South Florida are also lured into these schemes. Moreover, even for highly educated immigrants, U.S. immigration laws and regulations are extremely complex and difficult to navigate.
The perpetrators, often people from the home country of their targets, are almost never arrested and punished since victims – especially those without legal documents – are worried about deportation and do not call the police.
“Immigration services scams are a serious national problem,” said Ana E. Santiago, the public affairs officer for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency (USCIS) in Miami. “They exploit the vulnerability of immigrants, refugees, foreign students and others, including U.S. citizens.” USCIS oversees lawful immigration to the U.S. and processes requests from immigrants once they are here.
This virtually invisible crime affects thousands of people in South Florida each year, according to those working with immigrants. But there are no hard figures available either from government agencies or from non-profit groups working with immigrants.
“These scams are not new, but it’s very hard to get your arms around them,” said Ed Griffith, public information officer for the Miami-Dade Office of the State Attorney. There are a lot of instances where immigrants are scammed, “but if they’re here illegally, they’ll never go to the police to file a complaint,” said Griffith, who has worked at the State Attorney’s office in Miami-Dade since 1982.
The general estimate from those who work in legal services assisting immigrants is that the total loss from these specific immigrant scams is several million dollars a year.
How the schemes work
Victims may pay a few hundred dollars to individuals claiming expertise in complex immigration law and regulations for filling out paper or digital forms that must be filed with USCIS. The applications and petitions are later rejected for addressing the wrong issues or providing inaccurate information.
Some immigrants pay many thousands of dollars for more complex help in changing the client’s own status or that of family members.
The Pew Institute, using 2014 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, estimated that there are more than 450,000 undocumented immigrants alone in the areas encompassing Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, the most vulnerable target group for immigration fraud.
Jose Luis (not his real name), a Mexican immigrant living in Pompano Beach without a visa, became a victim of one of these scams. He came to South Florida early last year with a tourist visa and decided to stay here and work after his visa expired.
“I knew this was risky, especially after Trump became president,” said Jose Luis, speaking to the Florida Bulldog in Spanish. “Some friends told me that lots of people have done the same thing, and one gave me the name of a Mexican-American legal expert who could help me.”
Jose Luis, who speaks very little English, met with the “expert,” who promised he would arrange for a work visa. The desperate immigrant paid him $2,000 three months ago, and has heard nothing. The man did not return phone calls and has disappeared.
“I’m now an ‘indocumentado’ [undocumented alien],” Jose Luis said. “I still have a job, but the pay is not great and if the police raid the place, I’ll be in real trouble.”
Liz-Marie Alvarado, a community organizer with the American Friends Service Committee in Miami, told Florida Bulldog about another case:
A woman from El Salvador living in South Florida under a temporary visa that expired wanted to renew her visa and bring her children here to escape the gang violence and deteriorating economic conditions in her home country. She went to a Spanish-speaking notary public who said he would get her visa renewed and arrange for her children to come here. She paid him $8,000, but what he did instead was to create a false story that the woman had been the victim of a gang rape in El Salvador, and used this to apply for asylum. The notary assured her he had used the false sexual assault story in other cases, and that it would work better than the woman’s real story.
The woman did not understand English well, signed the false asylum application and went by herself to a U.S. immigration center. After speaking with her, the immigration officials realized it was a false statement, denied her application and ordered her deportation. An applicant who gives the government false statements in an asylum application can never request asylum again in the U.S.
As far as anyone knows, the perpetrator is still in business. “I tell immigrants, if you go to a lawyer or other immigration expert and they make you a lot of promises and just want to talk about money, come see me first,” Alvarado said.
Widespread crime, sparse punishment
“The situation for many immigrants has become desperate, especially under the current administration,” said Juan Carlos Gomez, a Miami immigration attorney who has worked for decades to defend individuals in immigration matters.
Gomez, a Florida International University law professor and director of FIU’s Carlos A. Costa Immigration and Human Rights Clinic, said immigrants often turn to anyone they think can help them, sometimes to people practicing law without licenses who make extravagant promises. They end up paying for services they never receive, while the scammers often go undetected and carry on lucrative businesses for years, Gomez said.
Immigrants have become alarmed since President Trump took office because the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has expanded detentions for visa overstays. “The government says nothing has changed under the Trump administration, but that’s BS,” Gomez said.
ICE did not respond to questions e-mailed by the Florida Bulldog.
Scam artists are hard to catch. Victims are usually afraid to denounce them, and immigrants here illegally know they can be turned over to local police or ICE if they go public. Here are few cases that have been uncovered:
- Two people running an accounting and translation office out of their home in Lakeland, Domenico Cingari and Rose Cingari, were charged with conspiracy, making false statements on immigration applications and mail fraud. They assisted undocumented aliens in obtaining Florida driver’s licenses by filing fraudulent applications for asylum, petitions for alien relatives and work authorization forms. The two charged clients between $500 and $1,300 for fraudulent immigration applications and collected over $740,000 while their scam lasted, according to the USCIS. The pair were found guilty last year and sentenced to federal prison.
- Four people were charged with conspiracy to commit immigration fraud in a Miami federal court for running a school to train immigrants – mostly Mexicans – to be Cubans. Under the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act, Cuban immigrants who arrive here without a visa can apply for permanent residence (green card) after living here for at least one year, a much faster and easier process than immigrants from other countries face. Nelson Daniel Silvestri Soutto, Laura Maria Ponce Santos, Amelia Osorio and Fidel Morejon Vega reportedly made over $500,000 selling false Cuban birth certificates to undocumented immigrants, helping them fill out fraudulent immigration forms and teaching them how to pretend to be Cuban immigrants. “Clients” were told that they should tell immigration officials that they arrived here on a raft, avoid speaking to them whenever possible and to say that they picked up their Mexican accents (which are very different from Cuban accents) while working with Mexicans here. One of the group also posed as an immigration officer and threatened some immigrants with deportation.
- Marriage fraud is a constant source of income for scammers. In 2015, federal authorities in Miami charged 27 people as part of a scheme to arrange marriages between residents of Miami-Dade County and immigrants from Latin America, the Ukraine and Israel, according to Law360. Last year, a Cuban-American woman was charged in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida with allegedly marrying 10 foreign nationals between 2000 and 2012.
Many scams, many victims
The cases mentioned above represent only part of the immigration scam spectrum. The USCIS field office in Miami also sees different fraudulent schemes, according to Santiago. Some of the most common are:
- Notaries – Immigrants often turn to notaries who improperly offer to solve their problems, but notaries in the U.S. are not authorized to provide any legal services to immigrants. They are individuals authorized by state governments specifically to witness the signing of documents and administer oaths. In Latin America, however, they perform some legal work.
- Phone scams – People posing as officials from the USCIS or other government agencies call immigrants and ask for personal data, tell them there is “false” information on an individual’s immigration records and offer to correct the problem for a payment.
- Business scams – Some individuals or community businesses guarantee that they can obtain benefits like an employment authorization or green card when they cannot. They sometimes file inaccurate forms with the USCIS, charging higher fees than the government agency’s normal fees and falsely promise to speed up processing times for a price.
- Diversity lottery – Every year the State Department makes 50,000 diversity visas available to randomly selected applicants based on special criteria and related to countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. Scammers send out emails and set up websites saying that, for a fee, they can make it easier for an immigrant to enter the lottery.
- Phony websites – Some websites offer step-by-step information on filling out a USCIS application or petition, sometimes providing links to the government website. USCIS has only one official website: uscis.gov.
“USCIS combats scams and the unauthorized practice of immigration law, in part, by educating and warning applicants about immigration scams and ensuring that applicants know how to find legal advice and assistance in completing and submitting forms,” Santiago said. “The wrong help can hurt.” USCIS works closely with federal, state and local law enforcement to support investigation and prosecution efforts for fraudulent activities, she added.
A senior official at the USCIS office in Miami, who asked not to be identified, told Florida Bulldog in a telephone interview that scammers charge their victims between a few hundred dollars to fill out immigration forms and as much as $15,000 or more for other false services, like telling a legal visa holder that he or she can become a naturalized citizen.
“These scams cost immigrants a lot of hard-earned money,” the official said. “They are damaging to immigrants and to our national security.”
USCIS reaches out to local communities, libraries and offices like the Department of Motor Vehicles to educate immigrants about proper procedures and how to contact non-profit organizations that can help them solve immigration problems, he said.
Any immigrant who wants to deal with complex U.S. immigration laws and regulations without expert assistance or prior counseling is at a serious disadvantage. The rules governing most visa changes, renewals and the like require lengthy written or digital applications, substantial fees and strict adherence to complicated procedures and timelines. Fortunately, South Florida is home to many honest immigration lawyers, advisors and for-profit firms who help immigrants, as well as a host of non-profit and advocacy groups, pro-bono immigration attorneys and others who work to assist immigrants.
The USCIS offers assistance in multiple languages at its regional offices. It has five in South Florida.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and USCIS are part of the Department of Homeland Security. ICE is the agency that enforces border control, trade and immigration laws and is almost universally feared by legal and undocumented immigrants.
Who are the scammers?
There appear to be legions of scammers and exploiters who prey on the fears of immigrants: They include people pretending to be attorneys, individuals who paint themselves as “experts” in immigration law, irresponsible notaries public (who in Latin America have a more substantial legal role than in the U.S. and are sometimes confused with attorneys by immigrants), unscrupulous lawyers and even “friends” or acquaintances from an immigrant community looking to make a fast buck.
The “experts” sometimes appear in an office space or work informally out of their homes. They buy advertising in community newspapers in Spanish or Creole and post ads on local buildings. In some cases, they have helped local people deal with simple immigration forms or applications and receive word-of-mouth referrals.
Badly handled immigration assistance is a serious, ongoing problem in South Florida, said Randolph P. McGrorty, an experienced immigration attorney and executive director of the Archdiocese of Miami’s Catholic Legal Services, an organization that works with about 3,000 immigrants every month. The bad advice may come from people innocently trying to help friends and family or from Latin Americans promoting schemes that prey on their own people.
“Sometimes, unqualified people do the immigration work with good intentions and really screw it up,” said McGrorty, whose organization has a staff of 45, including 22 attorneys. “We see the results after the damage is done.”
As for scams, “the most benign type involves improperly filling out forms or filing the wrong documents,” he said. The individual loses some money, but these problems often can be resolved.
“The real, critical problem involves scammers who fill out asylum claims. The applicant doesn’t speak English and just signs the document.”
People have a real story to tell, but scammers often make up information and immigrant officials don’t believe the story. “Any asylum application deemed to be ‘frivolous’ (containing false information) means that the immigrant is barred forever from access to the asylum program,” McGrorty said. “Some errors are correctable, but some can end up getting you deported. The consequences are dire.”
Victims fearful of police
The individuals returned to their native country must face the same problems – violent crime, discrimination, political oppression, etc. – that caused them to emigrate. “We are well aware of notary fraud that targets immigrant communities lacking the resources to seek legal help,” said Paola Calvo Florido, a representative of the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC). “Especially at this time, when fear [among immigrants] is so high, we urge community members to take extra precautions so that they don’t become victims of fraud.” FLIC, as well as other similar groups, has an immigrant hotline and provides lists of attorneys offering free or low-cost legal services.
So why don’t these types of scams receive more attention in the media? Why do very few people go to jail for stealing many thousands of dollars and repeating the fraud again and again in South Florida neighborhoods?
Fear. Most victims, after waiting for weeks or months are typically too frightened or ashamed to tell any legal authorities about the problem. They complain to the “expert,” who invents a convenient excuse: “The gringos turned you down,” or “The rules have changed,” or today they can blame anything on Trump. Irate clients are warned that the “expert” has contacts in the police and that they will be deported if they raise a fuss.
In some cases, the victims find a pro-immigrant organization or pro-bono lawyer and tell their stories. In others, they remain quiet and try to survive as undocumented workers. In still others, they are bilked for more money or are eventually deported.