Cheating Immigrants: the Real “Fraud” in the Immigration System

By Michelle Chen Aug 17, 2009

If you need more reasons to distrust lawyers, ask an immigrant. They might be able to tell you a thing or two about the vast cottage industry that has cropped up around immigration law. A case reported in the New York Times illustrates the perils that immigrants face as they navigate a shady bureaucracy, relying on private lawyers who promise to help them work the system:

Court papers in the [attorney James Hector Alcala’s] case say that the smooth-talking lawyer assured client companies that he could secure the prized H-2B visas for their workers, whom he then instructed to return to Mexico and lie to United States consul officials. … The authorities say Mr. Alcala obtained at least 5,000 H-2B visas for American companies, most through fraud and forgery.Some companies that hired him — including landscaping and construction — did not know the documents they paid for were gotten illegally…

Alcala also had partners who represented official instruments of immigration control. A former border patrol agent and a former consul worker have also been slapped with visa fraud and smuggling charges. The case exposes how broken immigration laws leave undocumented families open to a full spectrum of exploitation: not only wage slavery in the underground labor force, but also the scams of professionals peddling the promise of refuge. We hear lots of news about criminal "aliens," but much less about the families who have been cheated and split up by legal charlatans. Undocumented workers have been nabbed for illegally entering, but the infrastructure that allows them to be deceived and robbed along the way still profits. Even protections against immigrant trafficking are in danger of being expanded to target not those who prey on “illegals,” but activists who make the journey a little less exploitative. Back in 2006, anti-immigrant “reformers” threatened to criminalize groups offering humanitarian aid to the undocumented. If new legal liabilities were imposed on aid workers, the rules of the marketplace dictate that more immigrants would seek relief from private “advocates” masquerading as saviors. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has introduced a bill that would penalize anyone who “willfully and knowingly executes a scheme in connection with any federal immigration law-related matter to defraud a person.” It’s difficult to know what impact such a policy would have in the climate of terror looming over the undocumented population. How many would dare seek redress in a legal system that explicitly denies them equal rights? For the Alfaro family, according to the federal indictment, their lawyer’s bill came in the form of betrayal and deportation. One immigration lawyer in Aclala’s home base of Salt Lake City (where, incidentally, some white supremacists just had their prison terms reduced after their original sentences were deemed too harsh), explained the collateral consequences of corrupt lawyering:

“The biggest harm here is that immigration lawyers have traditionally been the only real bridge between immigrants coming to this country and the American dream,” [Aaron] Tarin said. “This case undermines not only that trust, but the system as a whole.”

Anti-immigrant groups might argue that people set themselves up for predation when they cross the border illegally. But everyone is cheated in a system that writes whole communities out of the social contract of equality before the law.