Fearing Deportation… and Scams

In Woodside, Queens, N.Y., immigrants are afraid to go out. They fear immigration police might arrest them and send them back to their countries. But what’s worse, police and advocates say something else is also making them wary: Scams.

President Trump’s policies against immigration have resulted in hundreds of arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants all around the country by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, in the last few weeks. In Queens, immigration advocates, lawyers, and the state’s attorney general all report that not only fake lawyers, but also scam artists, posing as federal immigration agents, are taking advantage of the confusion and fear sewn by the wave of arrests to try to fool immigrants to pay money so they won’t be arrested or deported. Immigrants in Woodside, Queens are understandably rattled.

“The community is scared, they don’t want to go out in the streets,” said Lina Garcia, the Mexican-American owner of El Mariachi Restaurant on Roosevelt Avenue, in Spanish. “I think it’s because the immigration laws are becoming so strict. So people are afraid of the ICE raids, of going out to the streets, and be deported, I guess.”

She added that business at the restaurant is suffering too. She believes it is because people are afraid to go out. “People are not coming, they are only ordering delivery to theirs homes,” she added.

Immigrants in the neighborhood have reason to be concerned. City and state officials have raised alarms. In mid-February, New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released a fraud alert that stated reports of scams were on the rise.

“It is unconscionable for scam artists to prey on heightened fear in our immigrant communities by pretending to be ICE officers and demanding that families pay up in order to avoid deportation,” said Schneiderman in the release.

The police department’s office of public information and the Mayor’s Office of Immigration Affairs didn’t answer requests for additional information on scams. Although, a press release on City Council Jimmy Van Bramer’s website explains one of the cases:

“At 3:30 p.m on Monday, February 13, a Woodside resident was approached on 65th Street by four people claiming to be federal immigration agents and wearing I.C.E. jackets. The group of men gave the victim a choice: give them all the money he had or they would take him in. The scammers walked away with $250.”

“The victim was scared to report it to law enforcement. They came to us in anonymous way,” confirmed the spokesman for the City Council member that represents Sunnyside, Woodside, Long Island City, Astoria, and Dutch Kills, in a phone call. “We will let people know if we get more reports.”

From a logical point of view, it makes sense that people in an undocumented situation would fear to report this or any other crime to the police. However, the NYPD acknowledges the situation, and has put signs all over the area that read:

“These (four) men who are dressed in Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent (ICE) uniforms state they are looking to deport immigrants if a sum of money is not paid to them. DO NOT PAY THEM ANY MONEY. This is a SCAM and it is not legal.”

The scams and the waves of ICE arrests are also stirring confusion in the community, accord to Maria Temilda Gonzalez, an immigration lawyer whose office is half a mile away from El Mariachi Restaurant. “In the last weeks, it’s been very complicated,” she said. “Unfortunately, there’s too much fear. It’s complicated to work with people who are scared; the fear is legitimate, and subjective, so it makes it more complicated.”

The fact is, that although there are more consultations, in most cases there’s not much that can be done, Gonzalez says. “There are many cases that don’t have a solution because unfortunately they have a criminal record or deportations orders,” she said. In these cases, deportation is much more likely to happen since the operations run under by ICE’s Enforcement and Removal unit are specially targeting criminal aliens and illegal re-entrants.

Gonzalez’s office isn’t the only one experiencing an uptick in traffic. Clients at El Centro del Inmigrante (Center for the Immigrant), a non-profit that offers legal and financial assistance to immigrants whether undocumented or not, have doubled. “Most of them are requesting legal services, they are asking to have an appointment with a lawyer,” explained Favio Ramirez Caminatti, its executive director.

Ramirez Caminatti says he is warning immigrants, who fear deportation, to be careful of people who are trying to take advantage of their vulnerability. According to Ramirez Carminatti’s El Centro del Inmigrante there are three types of scams:

ICE impersonators: People disguised as ICE agents are stopping people on the street and asking them for money not to be detained.

Fake lawyers: Many people are posing as lawyers, when they aren’t, according to Ramirez Caminatti. “They are notaries, or any kind of professional or not professional, or just somebody that says ’I’m a lawyer, give me $3,000 and I will help you, then disappears,” explained the non-profit’s executive director.

Dishonest lawyers: The center says some real lawyers are also taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of undocumented immigrants. “One thing that we have seen, especially here in Manhattan and Queens is these lawyers say to the people: ‘I will fix all your problems. You will have a work permit in two months; just pay me $5,000, $10,000, $15,000, said Ramirez Caminatti. “And because of the moment we are living in the country; of course they pay that money.”

This can be the most dangerous kind of scam, according to Ramirez Caminatti , a Uruguayan native, as these lawyers sometimes end up inadvertently putting their clients in danger of deportation without them even realizing it. Specifically, he explained that many lawyers make immigrants apply as refugees asking for asylum when they do not have a valid reason to do so. So as Ramirez Caminatti explains, these immigrants get their work permits in three or four months, but later throughout the year when they have to face a judge, they don’t have a good reason or the necessary documentation to prove their need of asylum. That automatically puts them at risk of deportation. He said he knows of two cases where this happened.

“Most of these people don’t know they are applying for asylum. The lawyers tell them to sign all these papers, but they don’t explain the process or what they are doing,” he explained. “Because they trust these lawyers, they sign and they pay.”

Amid the confusion and anxiety, one thing is clear: the fear of being arrested by ICE agents stirred by the president’s policies is not going to go away any time soon. “Hopefully everything will be fine for the good of all of us,” concluded Lina Garcia the restaurant owner of El Mariachi Mexican restaurant.  “I hope God helps us, because there’s no other person who could.”

What can undocumented immigrants do to protect themselves?

For starters, immigrants can attend numerous seminars that offer information on immigrant rights. El Centro del Inmigrante, for one, offers between four and five free “Know your Rights” trainings per week. At the sessions,  people can learn about all matters related to immigration and their rights.

To make sure a lawyer is who they say they are, immigration attorney Gonzalez recommends checking the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s website.  

If the cost of the lawyer seems too low, Gonzalez tells clients, think of it as a red flag. Also, she warns immigrants to be wary if they never meet the official lawyer and only go through the process with assistants or if the person shares space with other professionals such as accountants and travel agents.