Chicago immigrants falling victim to law fraud


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Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit April 6 accusing a Joliet woman of defrauding four Illinois residents out of more than $10,000. 

By Eric Bradach

Immigration law is complex and difficult to navigate for even a trained practitioner, let alone immigrants not familiar with American laws. This can often lead them to fall victim to scams, said Susan Fortino, a Chicago-based immigration attorney. 

Since the beginning of President Donald Trump’s administration, local immigration attorneys and advocates have seen an uptick both in the demand for assistance and in fraudulent immigration counseling services in the city. However, the cases are nothing new and are often caused by a lack of knowledge of immigration law, according to local immigration attorneys.

“Many of those who are taken advantage of and exploited are people who have not gone on to [higher education]. They assume that a notary public is just below a lawyer and can give legal advice,” Fortino said, referring to individuals who have authority to act as an official witness when legal documents are signed.

Fortino, who has been practicing immigration law for 30 years, said whenever there is a change in immigration law, there is a spike in these cases, as has happened in recent months because of the Trump administration’s vigorous immigration enforcement policies and plans to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. She added that she sees a new immigrant client who has been a victim of fraudulent legal services about every two weeks.

To combat recent fraudulent immigration services occurring south of Chicago, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit April 6 against a Joliet woman, accusing her of defrauding at least four Illinois residents out of more than $10,000 for unlicensed immigration counseling, according to the lawsuit. 

Fear of deportation is causing the uptick in fraudulent immigration counseling because it created a growing demand for immigration services, which allowed for people to take advantage of the situation, said Cinthia Rodriguez, immigration organizer at the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America.

“Fraudulent legal services are part of the unjust and terrible immigration system currently in place in this country,” Rodriguez said. “Why are folks seeking these services? There is a massive deportation and detention system in place. Almost three million were deported in [former President Barack Obama’s] administration, and those numbers continue.”

A daughter of Mexican immigrants, Rodriguez said undocumented immigrants in Chicago could be more susceptible to fraudulent counseling because of the city’s status as a sanctuary city. City officials should be enacting more protecting provisions, such as passing amendments to strengthen the Welcoming City Ordinance, Rodriguez added.

The ordinance, which passed in October 2016, prohibits city employees from questioning an individual’s immigration status and threatening deportation. However, the Chicago Police Department is allowed to collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement if targeted individuals are in the city’s gang database, have a pending felony prosecution or prior felony convictions, according to the ordinance.

In Madigan’s lawsuit, the southwest suburban woman is accused of not meeting state requirements for immigration service providers, including registering with the attorney general’s office, providing consumers with a written contract in English and their native language, a three-day window to cancel the contract and return all documents to the consumer upon the demand.

Eileen Boyce, Madigan’s spokeswoman, said the attorney general’s office has received about 12 complaints of similar fraudulent counseling in the first three months of 2017. In comparison, they received about 30 in the entirety of 2016.

“Unfortunately, there is a lot of fear and confusion about the recently issued executive orders and how they change our country’s immigration policies,” Madigan said in a February press release warning immigrant communities of counseling fraud. 

Also in February, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx launched a hotline for residents who fall victim to fraud as result of their immigration status. Victims can anonymously call and report the case. Federal authorities will not be contacted, according to a Feb. 24 press release from Foxx’s office.

Foxx’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the number of reports of fraudulent immigration counseling it has received as of press time.

Rachel Kao, co-chair of the Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Chicago chapter, said, immigration law fraud is underreported because victims are afraid and fail to understand when it has happened.

“Many [immigrants receiving fraudulent counseling] are not aware that they’ve been a victim,” Kao said. “They just think it hasn’t worked out.”

Victims normally come from countries with fewer civil rights as compared to the U.S., have difficulty understanding they can press charges and “are used to being the victimized,” Kao said.

Daniel Fisher, a Chicago-based immigration attorney, said when people become desperate, they become more vulnerable to scams. However, many immigrants’ fears of deportation are rational, he said. He has had legal inquiries from those who have irrational concerns. People need to educate themselves about immigration law, which can lead to fewer cases of fraudulent counseling, Fisher added.

“I have people who would call me that were naturalized citizens three, four years ago, and they’re scared their citizenship is going to be taken away,” he said. “I would classify that as an irrational fear.”

Immigrants seeking counseling need to do their research, and whenever anyone offers a “quick fix,” they should be skeptical, he said.

“Unfortunately, there are many instances where it takes years of going through paperwork to become a resident,” Fisher said. “So if someone is telling you they can make you a permanent resident for $10,000, $15,000 within a couple of weeks, that’s probably a scam.”