Given the possibility of wide-scale changes to immigration law, the Department of Homeland Security has intensified efforts to fight immigration fraud.
That’s good news.
Where’s there immigration reform, immigration fraud follows.
However, as one might expect, much of the DHS focus is misplaced.
No Help For Innocent Fraud Victims
Sadly, every time a new immigration program goes into effect, unscrupulous con artists open bogus offices. They advertise fake offers, make thousands off innocent immigrant families, then disappear.
As an immigration family unification attorney, I’ve seen the devastating effects first-hand. Usually, by the time victims of immigration fraud consult with me, it’s too late to help them.
Immigrants who are victimized often lose their money, their jobs, their communities, their homes, and – forced to leave the country under an order of deportation or removal, – they are often separated from spouses and families forever.
Many have been duped into immigration fraud schemes. Most are totally unaware they have filed papers with false information or taken other actions which violate immigration rules and regulations.
These are the innocent victims of immigration fraud.
Yet, immigration authorities have shown little, if any, interest in helping them overcome the harsh consequences attached to their victimization.
Immigration Fraud: Alive And Well
No immigrant community is immune.
And immigration fraud is not something which only happens when new programs are enacted.
For instance, in recent months, immigration fraud has been at the forefront of several news stories.
- In Santa Ana, California, a USCIS immigration officer was indicted on charges that she took cash and egg rolls as bribes from immigrants seeking citizenship and green cards. (New York Post, July 2, 2013.)
- In New York, a retired police officer who worked as a liaison to the Latino community, recently admitted to conning immigrants for asylum applications never submitted. (The Poughkeepsie Journal, July 15, 2013.)
- A security chief at the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica admitted to accepting bribes from an entertainer, whose entry to the U.S. had been barred, in exchange for helping him reinstate his visa. (Kaieteur News Online, July 11, 2013.)
Some schemes are more sophisticated.
- An agent with the Department of Homeland Security and a former immigration officer, along with three others, were indicted as participants in a long-running immigration fraud scheme. The conspiracy was allegedly orchestrated by a Los Angeles attorney who paid bribes as high as $10,000 to officials with several agencies in the Department of Homeland Security to help secure immigration benefits for aliens he was representing. (CBS Los Angeles, May 8, 2013.)
These stories depict a picture of immigration fraud not commonly emphasized in media reports or government studies.
The common denominator?
In each incident, there was a government official involved at the center of the fraud.
Were the involved immigrants fully ignorant about the deception? With the exception of the retired New York police officer case, probably not.
Exclusive focus on immigrants will not address the deeper problems.
For if defeating fraud is truly the government’s goal, there is another, perhaps more important question about these incidents.
Who hatched the schemes?
The roots of such conspiracies offer significant clues for the war against immigration fraud.
Too often, this aspect of immigration fraud is overlooked.
Even the Huffington Post, in an article entitled “Immigration Scams Blossom As Relief Nears For Undocumented Young People”, demonstrated this tendency.
Discussing deferred action fraud, the paper called out tax preparation services, lawyers, insurance agents, notarios, and interpreters as the villains. Government insiders were not mentioned.
The Government Overlooks Its Own Culprits
Human nature being what it is, immigration fraud is unlikely to be completely eradicated. It can be minimized.
Unfortunately, it appears Washington authorities have opted to overlook the leading role of their own agents in developing immigration fraud schemes.
Instead, DHS recently announced renewed efforts aimed solely at immigrants and their advocates.
According to the government, investigative trainers have been solicited to help USCIS agents become better at distinguishing between truth and deception in situations where the interviewee is not placed under oath.
A short list of the proposed training includes not only how to obtain confessions and admissions, but also how to direct the focus of interviews, maintaining poise and professionalism while the applicant’s attorney attempts to deflect and divert questioning.
(In general, as I had noted in No Role Model: A Culture Of Rudeness At Immigration Agencies, poise and professionalism training for immigration officers is a good idea, and long overdue. It should not be limited to just handling interviews.)
It’s easy to read between the lines of the government prescription.
Immigrants, in the eyes of DHS, are primarily fraud culprits, not fraud victims.
Simply stated, the government’s position is that immigrants lie on their applications, they know they’ve lied, they try to avoid telling the truth even under questioning, and they hire lawyers to help them from telling the truth.
Given this Gestapo-like mentality, will there be any latitude allowed for honest mistakes, genuine explanations, or simple corrections?
Under such a warped view, an immigrant seeking to become a lawful permanent resident is foolish to go alone to an immigration interview.
On the other hand, if the immigrant takes a lawyer, will the government presume the attorney is part of a cover-up?
CALIFORNIA ASSEMBLY BILL 1159
The California legislature has opened discussion on minimizing immigration fraud. Much of their focus is on the role of immigration lawyers.
But once again, the proposed cure may be worse than the symptoms.
Among several bad provisions, two aspects of California Assembly Bill 1159 stand out as counter-productive.
First, AB 1159 will impose a $100,000 bond on immigration lawyers, over and above annual malpractice insurance and regular attorney dues.
Bar surveys have shown the majority of deportation defense lawyers are solo practitioners. Many have chosen to practice immigration law based out of a commitment to achieving justice and fairness for immigrants.
Moreover, immigrants’ incomes are at the low end of the economic ladder, and attorneys who take such cases do so at a price far lower than even their immigration corporate counterparts who handle employment-based matters for corporations.
The proposed bond will force several permanent residence and green card lawyers to make an unpleasant choice: switch to a different area of law or raise prices for representation. Neither outcome benefits immigrants.
Second, the bill prohibits attorneys from providing any services for payment in connection with immigration reform before S. 744, or a similar Act, has passed.
Does this also mean lawyers are not allowed to discuss the impact of potential immigration reform changes with immigrants until an Act is officially the law?
Just a few days ago, in my role as a San Bernardino immigration lawyer, I discussed the advantages and disadvantages of proceeding with an I-601 family unity waiver matter versus seeking potential Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status with a new client.
Under the proposed California legislation, did I overstep the bounds of legal representation?
This provision of AB 1159 would curtail one of the mainstays of true immigration legal assistance. An attorney must be able to look backward and forward. In my opinion, I would fall short of my professional obligations if I am restricted from planning and implementing actions in anticipation of potential modifications to immigration law.
A Two-Step Solution To Winning The War Against Immigration Fraud
Two critical elements in the war against fraud are missing from the strong-arm tactics of the Department of Homeland Security’s approach.
First, they need to clean up their own house.
Very few fraud schemes can succeed without the presence of inside players. The government needs to spend more resources weeding out their own bad actors.
Second, they need to develop programs which distinguishes knowing from unknowing immigration fraud victims.
For an immigrant to be guilty of committing fraud requires knowledge and acceptance of the falsehood.
Some immigrants are completely ignorant and innocent of the wrong-doing. They should not suffer the same adverse consequences as an immigrant who knowingly engages in falsifying information. In turn, those cleared may also become important resources in identifying the real culprits.
Of course, DHS and USCIS do not exist to help immigrants legalize their status.
Until the government shows interest in the victims, immigrants will need to rely on their own instincts to stay away from those who would destroy their immigration hopes and dreams.
By Carlos Batara, Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics