Immigrants who need help the most have instead become victims of fraud.
With President Joe Biden's decision to reverse his predecessor's draconian and inhumane immigration policies, scammers are victimizing vulnerable immigrants who are trying to flee violence and poverty in their home countries.
Experts and immigration activists, responding to that problem, have been working overtime to sound the alarm.
On Thursday, the advocacy nonprofit Immigration Hub dispelled the myth that Biden had reopened the borders. In fact, the group said, the administration was still enforcing Title 42, an expulsion order compelling border officials to turn back or deport immigrants under the guise of public health, tied to the pandemic.
"The border is not open," the group said in a press release. "Despite the inflammatory and incorrect claims of some, the border remains closed to nearly everyone, in part due to COVID-19. There are very few exceptions being made, including for children who arrive alone, as required by law."
Still, scammers are spreading rampant misinformation among immigrants and taking advantage of their desperation.
In some instances, scammers have posed as officials from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, targeting defenseless immigrants and coaxing them into various forms of financial fraud, according to a Montana Standard report on Wednesday.
"Those are kind of a frightening message to get," Heather Molloy of Soft Landing Missoula, a nonprofit dedicated to helping resettle refugees, told the paper.
USCIS officials have cautioned the public, urging them to report any questionable activity. "USCIS is committed to combatting immigration services scams and unauthorized practice of immigration law," a spokesperson said in an email on Thursday, advising people to safeguard their personal information and research where they're going for help beforehand.
"The only people authorized to give you legal advice on immigration are attorneys and representatives accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals," they added.
On Thursday, Susan Reed, managing attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, warned of scammers disseminating false promises of "Biden amnesty" to immigrants and said it does not actually exist.
"We are already starting to see scams where unscrupulous people are saying, 'Pay me $5,000 and I'll sign you up for the Biden amnesty,'" Reed told a local affiliate. "There's just no basis for anyone — any attorney or anyone — to be offering that. There's no need for anyone to be paying anyone money for services that cannot be provided right now."
Scammers have also devised new ways to prey on immigrants with Biden's recent reversal of a freeze on several types of U.S. visas.
Reanna Smith-Hamblin, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau's Louisville, Kentucky, chapter, noted in the News-Enterprise that the scam frequently starts with an email that looks like it was sent by the U.S. State Department.
"It seems official and probably includes the U.S. seal. The message declares you’ve won the 'green card lottery,' a U.S. government program, officially known as the Diversity Visa Program, which grants 50,000 visas a year to individuals from selected countries," Smith-Hamblin said. "According to the email, you qualify for a United States visa. To get it, all you need to do is download a form, complete it and reply with a photo and copy of your passport."
She warned that the email is actually a phishing scam that could make immigrants victims of identity theft.
"Sharing detailed personal information, such as your name, birth date, address, marital status, and phone number, as well as passport photos gives scammers the information they need to impersonate you," she added.
Other visa lottery scams could come from fake websites that are not official, make false claims, and claim phony affiliations with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services or State Department, Smith-Hamblin said.
"For example, many offer to 'assist' immigrants in applying for the Diversity Visa Program. They promise if you hire them, your chances of receiving a visa improve," she said. "This claim is fake. Often, the only way these services 'improve' your chances is by including false information in your application. This practice immediately will disqualify you from the program."
The Better Business Bureau agency itself has published an official "Scam Alert" on visa phishing, reinforcing the same warnings.
Some immigrants are also falling victim to fake "notario públicos," which, in many Latin American countries, are legal professionals, the Miami Herald noted — in the United States, of course, they are not.
"There is also a lot of miscommunication about what is actually happening, especially for new immigrants who have just come and don’t understand how the process works," Mariana Martinez, an organizer with the immigrant nonprofit American Friends Service Committee, told the outlet. "That miscommunication happens and everyone gets excited and the notarios take advantage of that."
Oscar Londoño, executive director of WeCount!, a South Dade immigrant workers’ center, told the Herald, "Recently our members have been reporting an increase in notarios who are charging for applications that don’t exist, notarios who are encouraging them to pay exorbitant rates with promises of citizenship based on the Biden proposal. And so what we are doing right now is trying to counter that misinformation."
Some immigrants struggling from language barriers are also being scammed into paying another person to help them fill out paperwork, with some even promising a green card for greater sums of money, local affiliate WMDT-TV reported.
"You have these individuals who will say 'Hey I can help with the process. It’s a really scary process. It’s really hard.' Then they’ll charge $500 or $1,000," Eduardo Gonzalez, an immigration lawyer in Salisbury, told the outlet.
In the meantime, the National Immigration Justice Center has listed resources and detailed ways that immigrants can avoid fraud, including only seeking the help of accredited representatives and attorneys.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.