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.
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