Scam artists target hopeful immigrants

Tourists visit the Ellis Island Immigration Museum after it was re-opened to the public on October 28, 2013 in New York City. The structure suffered damage due to Superstorm Sandy's floodwaters almost a year before. Although most of the museum's displays opened, many historic artifacts remain in climate-controlled storage until repairs to the building are complete.

There are optimists who believe the door is open for Congress to tackle immigration policy. The Senate has passed a bill, the House ... not so much, but when immigration is in the news, scam artists see an opportunity. 

They'll tell immigrants they can help them get green cards -- even when these swindlers know full well many of their prospective "clients" aren't eligible.

When Karan moved from India to the United States 11 years ago, Karan could not believe his luck. A U.S. tech firm had sponsored him for a visa, and he was going to live in San Francisco.

But when he arrived, he got some unfortunate news. The company had folded -- and that meant Karan's H1B visa was no longer valid. "Because I was not working for the company, I was probably illegal from day one," Karan says. 

For most of the next decade, Karan lived here illegally. He moved to New York and did odd jobs to get by, but what he wanted was a work permit so he could apply for other tech positions.

An acquaintance told Karan he knew someone who could help. "He told me, 'Oh, this guy is good and he can help you get these papers.'" Karan went to see the attorney recommended, Earl David, who promised Karan a work permit and a green card for $20,000. 

The fact that David was demanding so much actually re-assured Karan. "That was the reason we fell for them," Karan says. "They were charging so much money we thought they were the right persons to go to." 

Karan's confidence in David only grew after the lawyer got him a work permit, as promised.

Turns out, though, that the whole thing was a scam. David was filing phony documents with the authorities, and even creating shell companies that allegedly hired his immigrant clients. 

After a while, Earl David stopped returning Karan's calls. And so Karan went to see another attorney, Allen Kaye. "I tried to warn him that even though he got a work permit the case was going to crash and burn," Kaye says.  

Kaye was right. Karan received a letter telling him he was in deportation proceedings. "When we saw that letter it was like there was no ground beneath my feet. It was a weird feeling," Karan says.

Kaye helped Karan find an attorney who won him a temporary reprieve from deportation, but Karan's wife is now at risk of being thrown out of the country. 

Kaye says that while immigration fraud is always a problem, it tends to peak when immigration reform is in the news -- like the effort in Congress to change immigration law for the first time in decades.

Nothing has passed yet, but that hasn't stopped frauds. Reid Trautz, who works at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says scam artists target people who have low information but high hopes -- like immigrants.

The Federal Trade Commission operates a database where immigrants can report fraud. That's where Michael Waller works, the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the commission. He urges immigrants who have been victims to come forward.

"I can't emphasize enough that the most important thing people can do to help stop this fraud is to file complaints," Waller says. "Law enforcement needs those complaints in order to identify targets."

The problem is, the victims are mostly undocumented -- and as lawyer Allen Kaye points out, they're scared.

"They are afraid of what is going to happen to them," Kaye says. "Are they going to get deported, are they going to get turned in, are they going to get locked up?"

Authorities did eventually find enough people to testify against Earl David, but not until he scammed more than 25,000 immigrants. David pleaded guilty to fraud, and this spring he was sentenced to five years in prison.

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