Features

July/ August 2013 Storefront Coyotes

Meet the con artists who “help” immigrants with their visa problems—and who will get rich if Congress passes a “tough” immigration reform bill.

By Anne Kim

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Coming attractions: As talk of immigration reform grows, expect more storefronts like these to blossom in immigrant neighborhoods, and more people to fall prey to fraudulent or incompetent service providers.

For more than a decade, Loma International Business Group, Inc., operated out of the seventh floor of the elegant stone building in downtown Baltimore known as “Baltimore’s First Skyscraper.” Loma’s owners, Manuel and Lola Alban, seemed to fit in well with the lawyers, accountants, and government officials who also had offices in the building. Manuel Alban advertised himself as an attorney, and the couple purported to offer legal services to immigrants, particularly from Honduras and El Salvador, who were looking for help in dealing with their immigration status. Over the course of a decade, the Albans filed immigration paperwork for more than 600 clients, charging each hundreds of dollars for their work.

In June 2011, a federal judge shut down Loma for deceptive practices. According to a complaint filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Manuel Alban was not an attorney, nor were the Albans authorized to provide immigration services, as they claimed. Moreover, more than half of the immigration applications they filed were rejected or denied, often because they filed the wrong form or failed to pay a fee. Collectively, the Albans bilked their clients of tens of thousands of dollars.

The Albans succeeded by using word-of-mouth advertising and preying on their clients’ vulnerability. “Since most consumers have limited English skills,” said the FTC’s complaint, “they place their trust in the Albans to select, prepare, and file the necessary English language immigration forms.”

They also succeeded by exploiting the Byzantine complexity of the immigration system, which is too intimidating for most laypeople to navigate on their own. Jackie Vimo of the New York Immigration Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group, calls immigration law “second only to the tax code for complexity.” She says her group “strongly advises against” clients applying for an immigration benefit on their own, because the stakes for immigrants are so high. Says immigration lawyer Rachel Van Wormer, “You put the wrong things on your form, and you could be deportable.”

Talk of immigration reform is moving closer to reality, and the legislation that emerges from Congress will determine whether the treacherous path that immigrants already face becomes more dangerous still. While politicians jockey to craft a “tough” bill that piles on hurdles and paperwork for immigrants, unscrupulous entrepreneurs like the Albans are likely salivating over the opportunities.

Immigration advocates already report an uptick in profiteering. Even though legislation has yet to be passed—and even when it has been passed, it will likely take months for the government to issue regulations governing the process—fraudsters are already claiming that visas are available and that a waiting list is being developed. “The ink isn’t even close to dry, and people are creating the false impression that people should start signing up now,” says the New York Immigration Coalition’s Vimo.

In fact, the biggest potential beneficiaries of reform might not be the eleven million undocumented immigrants eager for legal status. Instead, the winners might be waiting in the shadows: an army of “storefront coyotes”—a variation on the notorious profiteers who charge thousands of dollars to smuggle desperate immigrants across the border.

While recent opinion polls show that the majority of Americans support giving illegal immigrants a path to legal status, Americans also want that path to be “earned.” A 2013 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found, for example, that 63 percent of Americans support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants “provided they meet certain requirements.” Spelling out those requirements has been central to the current politics of reform, particularly for conservative proponents who feel the only way to pass reform is to mollify the hard right with a restrictive and tortuous path to legal status.

In the March 2013 proposal by the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” for example, the bill summary made it painfully clear that this proposal was no amnesty. After meeting preconditions on border security, “undocumented immigrants will be able to come forward, must submit to and pass background checks, be fingerprinted, pay $2,000 in fines, pay taxes, prove gainful employment, prove they’ve had a physical presence in the U.S. since before 2012 and going to the back of the line, among other criteria. Criminals and those who don’t meet these criteria will be deported.” Moreover, the proposal set an absurdly short timetable—one year—for all immigrants seeking legal status to file their paperwork.

Nevertheless, the first markup of the Senate bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee drew dozens of amendments from senators seeking to make the bill even tougher. Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, for example, filed twenty-four proposed amendments, including one to collect DNA samples from every immigrant seeking legality. Because proponents of reform feel they must bow to pressure that immigrants “earn” legal status, whatever new legislation emerges will likely make an already tortured path to citizenship even more complex.

Ever since Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the so-called “amnesty” law that legalized 2.7 million undocumented immigrants, Washington, under pressure from an angry public, has passed ever more draconian restrictions on immigrants, legal as well as illegal. First came the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996, which banned new immigrants with green cards from receiving government benefits such as Social Security, increased border security and penalties for immigration fraud, and dramatically expanded the list of deportable offenses. Then, after the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed a slew of measures tightening immigration, including the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which created the Department of Homeland Security and put immigration in its purview; the USA PATRIOT Act, which made it easier to deport suspected terrorists; and the REAL ID Act, which made claiming asylum tougher and made driver’s licenses unavailable to undocumented immigrants.

In theory, despite all these new laws the immigration process remains fairly simple: you apply for a visa, become a “lawful permanent resident” (that is, you get a “green card”), and then you apply for citizenship. But in practice, the process has become impossibly protracted. According to the Migration Policy Institute, immigrants from countries where the demand to immigrate is high, such as the Philippines, have waited as long as twenty-four years just for their initial visa.

Anne Kim is a writer based in Washington, D.C., and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.