NEW YORK -- Days after President Barack Obama in June said his administration would grant relief to certain young, undocumented immigrants, a Southern California business posted flyers and mailed postcards laying out a very Los Angeles option.
Pay $6,000 and your name could be one of just a few on a priority list that federal officials evaluating applications would then approve. There were just a few problems: The government's deferred action directive doesn’t include the administrative equivalent of a velvet rope or a VIP room. The federal agency that will ultimately decide who gets to claim a two-year, renewable deportation reprieve and work permit hasn’t released an application form and won’t do so until Aug. 15. And, until late Friday, it wasn’t even clear exactly who would be eligible to apply.
But across the country, tax preparation services, lawyers, insurance agents, notaries, interpreters and business operators of unknown professional origin have began advertising deferred action specials, lists and programs. Some are outright scams, community activists and government officials said.
“Every time there is an announcement or even talk about immigration in Congress, you always have those entrepreneurial, but unfortunately unscrupulous people who come along and make these ‘offers,’ said Clarissa Martínez De Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns at the National Council of La Raza, a Washington-based civil rights organization.
Five community organizations and civil rights groups contacted by the Huffington Post late Friday said they plan education initiatives, workshops and hands-on application help sessions to assist young undocumented immigrants.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, the Department of Homeland Security agency overseeing the program, has long listed descriptions of some of the more common scams perpetrated on immigrants and how to avoid them on its website. But fraud remains such a persistent problem that on Friday, when The Citizenship and Immigration Service announced some details of the deferred action directive application process, the agency included a warning about scams.
There is no expedited processing for deferred action. Dishonest practitioners may promise to provide you with faster services if you pay them a fee. These people are trying to scam you and take your money.
Undocumented immigrants are, in most cases, hungry to change their immigration status. But they face an immigration system that, like many government processes, can be slow and complex. The system includes few if any options for many Central American and other immigrants to immigrate legally, said Martínez De Castro. Many immigrants are also loathe to officially report mistreatment or fraud. The combination makes undocumented immigrants frequent targets for fraud and other crimes, she said.
In Chicago, not long after Obama’s June announcement, ads began running on Spanish language radio offering legal help with deferred action directive applications, said Douglas Rivlin, a spokesman for Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat who represents a Chicago-area district and a vocal advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. Some offers are, no doubt, honest and legitimate, Rivlin said.
At least one Chicago-area lawyer contacted people who may be eligible for the relief under the deferred action directive and promised to help them if they paid a monthly retainer, Rivlin said. The contract carried a $1,700 price tag.
On Aug. 15, Gutierrez will join Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat who represents Illinois, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, clergy members, volunteers and staff affiliated with several area nonprofits to host an application workshop in Chicago.
After the president’s announcement, Gutierrez’s offices began receiving calls from people who want to apply. That list has grown to include 500 names, Rivlin said.
The National Council of La Raza is also working with a network of community organizations to assemble teams of trained volunteers and lawyers who will operate application assistance sessions across the country beginning this month, Martínez De Castro said. Some organizations have begun distributing lists describing documents people should gather to support an application.
The lists come with warnings: don’t trust anyone who says they can help you apply right now, that they have a special program or influence, Martínez De Castro said.
To apply for the program, young undocumented immigrants must meet certain criteria. Some will have to travel or pay additional fees to obtain documents. That process is likely to cost a total of $600 to 800 for one individual and about $1,000 for families with two eligible children, said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, director of communications at The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Those figures include the $465 fee that must be paid directly to the Citizenship and Immigration Service.
The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights is a Southern California organization that got its start helping immigrants navigate the process of applying for legal permanent residency and citizenship after a 1986 federal law granted amnesty to some undocumented immigrants. Over the next 30 years, the organization expanded into legislative advocacy and grass roots activism around education and other issues.
The group last month mailed information about the deferred action program to 15,000 individuals and began holding workshops and fielding an average of 200 daily phone calls.
“The most common questions?,” said Cabrera. “What will happen after two years? Will the program end if a different administration is elected in November? How much does it cost? What do I need to provide to show that I have in fact been living in the U.S. five years? And consistently, how do I apply and protect my parents [from immigration authorities]?”
Few callers ask questions about potential scams, he said.
Fermin Vasquez serves as the statewide Communications Coordinator for Californians for Justice. One of Los Angeles' youngest emerging Latino leaders, Fermin was a Front Line Leaders Academy Fellow with the People for the American Way Foundation, based in Washington D.C. In 2010, Fermin became the first one in his family to graduate from college, and received his degree in Political Science from California State University, Los Angeles. He was also a founding member and President of Students United to Reach Goals in Education (S.U.R.G.E.), a support and advocacy organization for those that may not have come here with the right papers, but have been raised with the right values. He is a contributor to the HuffPost LatinoVoices DREAMers Blog Series, and his posts can be read here.
Laura E. Enriquez is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles where she does research on the experiences of undocumented young adults. She is a dedicated scholar-activist and specializes in immigration, race/ethnicity, and gender. She has been mentoring, teaching, and organizing with undocumented young adults for the past five years. She is a contributor to the HuffPost LatinoVoices DREAMers Blog Series, and her posts can be read here.
Fernando Romero is the Coordinator for the Justice for Immigrants Coalition of Inland Southern California; he is also a co-founding member of Dreamers Adrift, a new media project for undocumented students, by undocumented students. He is a contributor to the HuffPost LatinoVoices DREAMers Blog Series, and his posts can be read here.
Alma Castrejon was born in Mexico City and came to the United States at the age of seven. In 2008, she graduated from UC Riverside with B.A. degrees in Political Science - International Relations and Chicano Studies. While at UCR she founded Providing Opportunities, Dreams and Education in Riverside (PODER), a support group for undocumented students on campus. In 2011, Alma received her Master of Arts degree in Education at CSU Long Beach. She has been a member of Dream Team Los Angeles (DTLA), a community and student group that advocates for undocumented student rights and immigrant rights, since 2009; she is also an active member of Graduates Reaching a Dream Deferred (GRADD), a group of undocumented graduate students that addresses the needs of immigrant students interested in pursuing graduate education. Alma will be applying to law school in the fall of 2012. She is a contributor to the HuffPost LatinoVoices DREAMers Blog Series, and her posts can be read here.
Juan Escalante is an undocumented student and recent graduate from Florida State University. He is a core-member of DreamActivist.org and the founder of DreamActivistFL.org; both are online organizations that provide resources for undocumented students across the country. He is a contributor to the HuffPost LatinoVoices DREAMers Blog Series, and his posts can be read here.
Nancy Meza is a human being from Jalisco, Mexico. She was brought to the U.S. by her responsible and courageous mother at the age of two and proudly grew up in East Los Angeles California. She is a graduate of Theodore Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights. After High School she attended East Los Angeles Community College and transferred to UCLA where she became actively involved in organizing around undocumented and immigrant rights issues with IDEAS at UCLA and Dream Team Los Angeles. She graduated with a degree in Chicana/o Studies and a Labor and Work Place Studies minor in 2010. She is currently an intern at the Dream Resource Center; a project out of the UCLA Labor Center and continues to organize with Dream Team Los Angeles where she is a member of the media and communications team. She is a contributor to the HuffPost LatinoVoices DREAMers Blog Series, and her posts can be read here.
Erick Huerta is majoring in journalism at East Los Angeles College. As a member of Dream Team Los Angeles, he is one of the coordinators handling the group's communications and social media endeavors. He has lived in the U.S. for the past 20 years and has been chronicling his personal experiences as an undocumented resident for the last eight years on his personal blog. He's also a community reporter for the community of Boyle Heights and an avid cyclist. He can be recognized by his trademark bigotes. He is a contributor to the HuffPost LatinoVoices DREAMers Blog Series, and his posts can be read here.
Jonathan Perez is a queer undocumented political exile from Colombia, and a Co-Founder of the Immigrant Youth Coalition in Southern California. On why he contributes to the series, he writes, "It is shocking to most, but I don't actually advocate for the DREAM Act. I organize for the rights of undocumented immigrants. I believe that in order to have meaningful changes we must first address the root causes. In order to change our realities we have to build a global movement and a global revolution. I write for the Huffington Post DREAMers Blog Series because it gives me the opportunity to give a different perspective to what the issues of undocumented people are." You can read his posts here.
Originally from Naranjo, Alajuela, Costa Rica, Mayra immigrated to the United States with her family when she was 6-months-old. She is undocumented and has dedicated her life to the immigrant movement in Florida. She lives in Lakeland, Florida where she is an organizer for Students Working for Equal Rights (SWER), a grassroots organization founded by undocumented immigrant youth in Florida. She also serves on the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC) and United We DREAM (UWD) Board of Directors. She helped start an immigration legal clinic that offers free legal immigration consultation to low-income immigrants in her community and serves as the Clinic Coordinator. She also serves as the Migrant Scholar Advocate for Scaffold the Scholar, a professional development initiative for former farm-worker women working in early childhood education and is a member of the Polk County School Board Diversity Council. She was a project manager for the Trail of Dreams campaign in 2010, a 1,500 walk from Miami, FL to Washington, D.C., demanding that President Obama stop the deportation of undocumented students. Currently a undergraduate college student, she aspires to eventually earn a law degree specializing in immigration law so she can continue to serve the community that taught her to persevere against all odds.
Jesus Cortez is an undocumented graduate student at the California State University, Long Beach College of Education. He grew up in Anaheim, California and is a member of the Orange County Dream Team. He is a contributor to the DREAMers Blog Series, and his posts can be read here.
Angy Rivera is a Colombian-born, New York-raised undocumented immigrant who started the first undocumented youth advice column, Ask Angy, while a core member at the New York State Youth Leadership Council. She also blogs for DreamActivist.org.