Fraud Targets Immigrants
Farr hosts forum to educate and protect undocumented workers.
Thursday, June 26, 2003
Photo by Michelle Caldwell: Deputy District Attorney Denine Guy says less than a half-dozen immigration fraud cases are successfully prosecuted locally each year, but the crime is rampant in Monterey County.
Jose Edmundo Martinez is watching the days wither by from a cell at the Monterey County Jail. On May 30, Martinez began a one-year sentence after being convicted of four counts of grand theft in connection with his role in an elaborate immigration scheme that spanned at least a year and claimed countless victims and dollars. When he gets out early next spring, he''ll have five years of prison hanging over his head.
The scam that brought Martinez down was borderline ingenious. According to Deputy District Attorney Denine Guy, Martinez reeled in undocumented immigrants by promising them work for his bogus construction company. Martinez would then tell them that he would need work documents in order to employ them--documents he would offer to secure for them, for a fee. The victims paid the fees, and Martinez disappeared.
Often, according to Guy, Martinez would allow the victims to live with him, then kick them out. "He''d tell them, ''La Migra! La Migra!''" Guy says. Under the threat that the feds were on their way, the victims would leave quickly, leaving their belongings and money behind with Martinez.
It sounds ingenious, but the fact is that immigration fraud is an old, tried-and-true brand of deception.
Local law enforcement officials say that while frauds like Martinez''s are commonplace, they result in less than a half-dozen convictions each year.
In one of the oldest scams in the book, according to immigration lawyers around the county, Mexican immigrants hoping to secure a work permit turn to companies offering immigration services. There they are told they simply need to apply for asylum.
Guy says that to the unsuspecting immigrant, it all seems completely legit.
"If you''ve just come here from Mexico, and you see these official-looking documents and someone''s telling you this is how it''s done, why wouldn''t you believe them?" she says.
A loophole in federal immigration law allows for the immediate granting of a work permit once an immigrant has applied for asylum. "The problem," says Rachelle Parks, an immigration lawyer in Monterey, "is that there''s no such thing as asylum for Mexican immigrants."
According to Parks, once the application for asylum is denied, it''s referred to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services--most commonly referred to by its old name, the INS, (in Spanish, La Migra). "By that time, it''s just too late and the reality of deportation is facing them," Parks says.
That''s exactly the kind of thing one Salinas company is suspected of doing, according to a source familiar with the case.
The local district attorney''s office is investigating an immigration-consulting services office named Gladys Oficina de Immigracion E Servicios.
While Guy wouldn''t comment, sources close to the investigation say they have received countless complaints about the company, located on East Alisal Street in Salinas.
Manager Hugo Jimenez says he''s aware that an investigation into his wife Gladys'' business is underway, but vigorously denies the allegation. "When they come in looking for asylum, we refer them to our attorney," he says.
Gladys Jimenez'' attorney, Dana Mendelson of San Francisco, says Mexican immigrants can in fact apply for and be granted asylum. Mendelson says that as many as 15 percent of applicants are granted asylum.
But she says that lots of things can play into whether or not asylum is granted. "Things happen," she says, "like maybe it gets denied if the judge is in a bad mood."
Either way, Mendelson is adamant that those who petition for asylum know what they''re getting into first.
"They know exactly what the odds of being granted asylum are when they are through with Gladys and Hugo and me," Mendelson says. "And then it''s their choice to either go ahead with requesting it or not."
The most common scheme that victimizes unknowing immigrants involves the production and sale of false documents.
J.D. Davidson of the Monterey County sheriff''s department says such phony documents aren''t difficult to find--in fact, he says, they''re a daily find for police officers.
"For the most part, I don''t even think the person handing them over to the officer realizes they''re fake," he says.
The false documents come in all forms: driver''s licenses, Resident Alien cards, Social Security cards. Their street values range from $10 to $500, depending on the scam artist and the scam. In some cases the forgery is so good, they''re indistinguishable even to those who should know better.
"One of the worst parts," Guy says, "is that they''re using them successfully. People are registering their cars and doing otherwise legal things with them without ever realizing they''re fake."
Parks wonders about the problem of fake credentials, and the importance of going after the right people, the ones providing the credentials in the first place. "Really, who''s the victim here? Is it the street person trying to get a job? They''re not the ones putting out the false documents," she says.
Prosecuting those who are providing the documentation and filing the never-to-be-granted petitions is ultimately the key, according to community advocacy groups like California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).
In that vein, there are many avenues to address.
All too often, the fear of deportation silences victims who already feel like they have no voice. Most every community outreach group has pages and pages of horrific stories of immigration fraud to tell. But the ones who matter, the ones being victimized, are rarely coming forward to people in a position to do much about it.
"It''s a real balancing act," Guy says. "We need to break down the barriers that exist between law enforcement and immigrants. Right now, the perpetrator is of the mindset of ''Well, who are these people going to tell?''"
One source close to the DA''s office says the risks of deportation upon reporting immigration fraud are quite small. "Quite honestly, it''s a don''t ask/don''t tell policy. Everyone just knows that everyone else is just going to look the other way," he says.
Guy agrees, to a point.
"In the end, she says, "the perpetrator is certainly the focus of the investigation and not the immigrant." But, she''s quick to add, "there are certainly no guarantees."
Jesus Lopez, a community worker CRLA in Salinas, says that often by the time immigrants realize they''ve been had, it''s too late to do much at all. "What do they do then? They leave the country or hide from the INS again," he says. "They sometimes change their names and try to start a new life. They have to work."
In fact, obtaining documents legally isn''t that big a deal.
To that end, US Rep. Sam Farr has organized a taskforce to specifically address the concerns facing immigrants. On Saturday, June 28, Farr''s office will host a workshop to teach immigrants how to go about filing necessary paperwork, to explain the rules and regulations governing immigration, and to offer guidance about the reporting of fraud.
Guy is hopeful that with the dissemination of information, immigrants'' fears of reporting victimization by scams will be alleviated. "The more we can encourage people to come forward and allow them to see that we have an open door to them, the more we''ll be able to reduce the number of perpetrators on the streets," she says.
Rep. Sam Farr will host a forum on immigration Saturday, June 28 from 10am to 1pm at Catholic Charities in Salinas: 1702 Second Ave. For more information, call the Central Coast Immigration Project. 424-2713.