05/18/2012 08:07 am ET Updated Jul 18, 2012

The Silent Casualties of Immigration Scams

With 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, the need for comprehensive immigration reform is not going away.

In the meantime, however, there are untold casualties who are suffering in ways that few are discussing. Our nation's refusal to make immigration reform a priority has created the perfect storm for a silent problem to fester: immigration scams. Each year, undocumented immigrants are targeted, conned, and exploited by ruthless scam artists who promise the American dream but deliver only despair and financial ruin.

It has become such a persistent and growing problem that the federal government has created a database with over 6 million immigration fraud complaints, and for the first time last year created a joint task force to fight the scourge of "notario fraud" through a collaboration between the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice and the Federal Trade Commission. But enforcement efforts at the state and federal level can reach only the tiniest tip of the iceberg.

The story of Maria Gutierrez Aragon illustrates the ugly reality of what is happening every day. Maria is an indigenous Mexican woman from Oaxaca who has been in the United States for over 20 years, working at a dry cleaner and washing dishes at a restaurant. After years of abuse by her husband, Maria said enough is enough and reported the violence to the authorities.

As a victim of domestic violence, Maria is eligible for immigration relief under the U visa program that is intended to protect victims of crime. Taking advantage of her vulnerable situation, a family friend approached her and offered to help her. This "friend" told her that he would act as her personal representative, and that he would work with an immigration law firm to file a visa application on her behalf.

None of it turned out to be true. There was no immigration case, and the man eventually took $80,000 from her over nearly a decade.

How could it go on so long? To make this deception credible, the alleged scam artist forged numerous letters and documents from various government agencies and law firms threatening her with deportation or arrest if she told anybody about what was happening. Maria worked 14-hour days and borrowed large sums from family members to meet his ever growing demands.

Adding to this scheme of extortion, the "friend" coordinated a lengthy series of intimidating phone calls from third parties - all of which threatened deportation or incarceration if she failed to comply with the demands.

Unlike the vast majority of victims, Maria's story has a happy ending. Working with Public Counsel in Los Angeles, she now has an immigration case pending, and the Los Angeles District Attorney has filed criminal charges for grand theft against the alleged perpetrator. Maria talked about her ordeal to Univision.

Unfortunately, arrests like these are rare. That's what the federal task force on notario fraud is meant to help change. Until that happens, here are some steps you can take to avoid becoming a victim:

  • Make sure to consult an attorney, not a notario: If you are undocumented and need legal advice regarding your situation, avoid any notario, immigration consultant, or other so-called "professional" who is not a licensed attorney in your state. Request receipts for payments, request copies of all documents filed on your behalf, and make sure you have a representation agreement in writing. If anything doesn't feel right, get a second opinion.
  • There is free or low-cost legal help available for people who think they have been defrauded: The Board of Immigration Appeals has a website with referrals to local immigration attorneys or non-profits that can provide services for low or no cost.

While America debates the need for immigration reform, rampant fraud committed against immigrants is a hidden shame that affects millions of people. Maria's story shows there is something we can do to enforce our nation's promise of fairness -- not as citizens, legal permanent residents and undocumented people, but together.

The best and most direct way to eliminate the breeding ground for these immigration scams is to pass comprehensive immigration reform and put our brothers and sisters on the path to citizenship. It's time for our nation to have the courage of Maria and say enough is enough.