A perfect storm of immigration change is upon us:
■ New driver authorization cards in Nevada next year for those who want to drive but cannot because they live in the country illegally.
■ The continual issuance since this summer of federal two-year work permits, which delay the deportation of young adults who came to this country illegally as children — the DREAMers.
■ The prospect of 12 million immigrants becoming U.S. citizens in the next 13 years if the House of Representatives approves the essence of the immigration bill that just passed the U.S. Senate.
But these changes have a downside for the people they are intended to help: an increase of about 30 percent in fraud carried out against immigrants in the Silver State in the past six months by those who prey on their sense of desperation.
The fraud is expected to worsen as thousands of immigrants apply for their driver authorization cards in Nevada, which the state will start issuing in January. Photo IDs and birth certificates from Mexico will be required. It’s the sort of stuff that the black market thrives on.
Some of the swindlers pretend to be immigration attorneys, making false promises and then making off with the money or filling out paperwork improperly, causing irreversible damage to the immigrant’s chances because in some cases the federal government only allows one shot.
The fraud is so pervasive these days that a series of meetings have been held in the past month at the Mexican Consulate, where presentations and even testimonials have been delivered to the audience. The key message: Make sure to hire a real attorney before you do anything, and make sure not to hand over any of your money to someone who is not.
Preying on desperation
“These people, they take advantage of the immigrants, and often a few of them themselves are immigrants,” said Miriam Lira-Hickerson, the state’s ombudsman of consumer affairs for minorities for the Department of Business and Industry in Las Vegas.
“They know how to reel them in. Some of them have a working knowledge of the bureaucracy and they sound very authoritative, but in the end they accomplish nothing.”
Since she was hired by the state in April, she said she gets between a dozen and two dozen calls about fraud perpetuated upon immigrants each day.
In her private practice for five years she helped thousands of fraud victims daily, but it was nowhere near the volume she deals with these days.
“I can’t tell you how many sad stories I hear each day on the phone,” she said. “It’s important that the people out there know that their dreams of becoming a U.S. citizen, or their dreams of suddenly getting their driver authorization card, or their two-year work permits, this sort of stuff doesn’t just happen overnight and for a few thousand dollars.
“They just don’t.”
In fact, it’s the reverse.
It should cost immigrant applicants only a few hundred dollars to apply for driver’s cards, their work permits and ultimately their citizenship under immigration reform — not thousands of dollars, she said.
Immigrants generally are on the right path when they’re filling out paperwork with the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, applying for work permits with the federal government — more specifically the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, known as USCIS.
“You’re not going to be relying on one person, and if you are, then it should be an experienced lawyer,” said Julian Adem, the new Mexican consul in Las Vegas.
THE NEW LAW
Immigrants often flock to notary public offices for help. These storefronts are numerous in Las Vegas, but the negative consequences can often be irreversible, whether intentional or not.
That’s why Nevada legislators this year approved Assembly Bill 74. Beginning in March this new law will ensure that anybody who is preparing documents for immigrants must register with the state and post a $50,000 insurance bond in case something goes wrong.
A new term expected to crop up could turn out to be “Document Preparer,” a term often cited in the new law.
The law will usher in a 1-800 fraud hotline, a recourse for people who feel they have been scammed, said Juan Ortega, a spokesman for Lucy Flores, the Democratic assemblywoman who authored the bill.
“What we’re dealing with here often boils down to cultural differences and definitions,” Ortega said. “Many of the immigrants who are being ripped off, whether it’s intentional or not, are from Mexico, and it just so happens that in their country, a notary, or ‘un notario,’ is generally a well-respected and educated lawyer.”
But in Nevada, virtually anybody can become a notary public. Immigration services, including notary public signs, adorn all sorts of small businesses, even automobile repair shops.
They’re basically a public officer who administers oaths and affirmations. They deliver a stamp of approval for $20. Often their key duty as a notary public is to make sure that the people filling out the paperwork are who they say they are. They also ensure that the document being prepared is genuine.
Problems arise when notaries start filling out complicated and important immigration paperwork, and sometimes the applicants only have a one-shot deal such as DREAMers who apply for work permits.
“The bottom line is that the immigrant is putting a lot of trust in somebody they really don’t know and who aren’t even registered with the state,” Ortega said. “But Lucy’s new law will now require them to register, whether it’s a notary or anybody else looking to make side money off immigration laws.”
Ortega said the $50,000 bond will ensure financial redress in cases where it is warranted.
THE STATE’S expert
In the meantime, all the state has is ombudsman Lira-Hickerson, not a bad asset given her experience in the Latino community from her former business.
Just the other day she took a call from a despondent woman who was duped out of $15,000 by a man who promised he would reunite her with her son, who was deported last year for a DUI.
“He told her he had connections in the federal courthouse, and that he could get her son back, no problem at all,” she said. “She spent everything she had in savings, rent money she’d been collecting since 1996, renting out a part of her house for years. It’s all gone.”
These sorts of stories are common.
And before she was offered the job as ombudsman, the pace was almost as frenetic at her own private consulting firm, which she has since left for the state job.
In the past five years, she has noticed an annual 15 percent increase in the number of complaints. But this year is different, she said. This year she’s having a hard time keeping up.
“I do what I can,” she said. “I make sure the police know about it. I contact the FBI, if it falls within their jurisdiction. My job is to make sure the people who are robbed receive help. But unfortunately, it’s sometimes too late, and the thief has already left town.”
Contact reporter Tom Ragan at email@example.com or 702-224-5512.