The call to Claudia Montero began with threats. The man told her she owed more than $3,000 in back taxes, and she had to pay up immediately. She told him she didn’t have that kind of money.
"He say, 'What do you prefer? You prefer to pay everything like I tell you right now, or you prefer to be in jail and never see your kids again,'" Montero remembers.
In retrospect, Montero says there were plenty of red flags. The caller refused to deal with her tax-preparer, refused to let her talk to anyone else, refused to give her specifics about why she owed the money. And most of all, he refused to give her time.
But one threat, above anything else, stopped her from pressing him.
"He say, 'If you don’t pay, that is going to cost you. You will be in trouble with immigration,'" Montero recalls. "That really got me scared."
Like a lot of people, immigrants are targeted by scammers, from phony IRS agents to bogus legal services. What often makes them more susceptible, and the scammers more successful, is the drumbeat of a single threat: deportation.
Montero had moved to Canton from Mexico more than 20 years ago without documents. By the time the call came, her application for a work permit had run into complications. So the threat seemed real.
Montero ended up losing $1,500 – her rent, car payment, what she’d saved for Christmas gifts for her three children.
Cuyahoga Falls immigration attorney Farhad Sethna has witnessed plenty of versions of Montero’s story. He says scammers feast on fear, and fear is pervasive among immigrant communities these days.
“You have people who prey upon immigrants,” Sethna says. “They don’t speak the language. They don’t understand the law.”
Technology helps. Scammers use so-called ghost phone numbers that mimic official U.S. immigration numbers. They send text alerts that Social Security numbers must be renewed, at a cost of $1,000 or more. Or that recipients must sign up for $1,400 online English classes immediately or they’ll be shipped out.
But some scammers operate closer to home, or swoop in during a crisis.
Lawyers And Notarios
It’s a Sunday afternoon, and about three dozen members of the Guatemalan community in Salem have gathered for church. Toddlers charge around the back of the room. Most of the women wear hand-sewn beaded dresses, each color representing their home village.
Hery Salamanca is associate pastor of First Christian Church down the street but helped plant this church. He also led the effort to care for stranded children, negotiate releases and be a bridge between the community and the ICE agents who raided the Freshmark meat-packing plant here a year ago.
Within hours of that raid, others – including lawyers – descended on the town, some making promises to win immigration cases that, according to Salamanca, they knew they couldn’t keep.
“We have at least six families that paid some lawyers $7,000 to $10,000,” Salamanca says. “Families who lost their jobs, who were in maybe the worst time of their life.”
He says lawyers weren’t the only ones taking advantage. Some pastors rigged bonds so they would be the ones to get the money back after people were deported. Others charged hundreds of dollars to take people to immigration hearings in Cleveland.
And then there are the so-called “notarios.”
Sethna calls this an especially pernicious scam. In many of the immigrants’ home countries, the title notario denotes a certain legal authority. Here, it’s often used to get people to pay thousands of dollars to file worthless documents that immigrants believe are legitimate U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement applications.
“They’re completely bogus, there’s no basis for them at all,” Sethna says. “And of course the USCIS is going to deny the application. Now two things have happened there. Not only has the alien lost his or her money, but number two, the alien has now given himself up to USCIS and said, ‘Hey, I am here.’”
Meanwhile, the window to file a legitimate application slips away. The problem became so widespread that last month, Ohio began forbidding notaries from advertising themselves as “notarios.”
Both Sethna and Salamanca say there’s a legitimate reason and role for border protection, to protect the U.S. and immigrants. Salamanca is concerned in particular that a number of young girls who disappear shortly after they arrive in Salem have been sexually trafficked.
But increasingly, Salamanca says immigrants who are victims of a range of crimes don’t tell authorities. He says there’s no overstating the level of fear.
“Some people don’t understand what is the feeling of living in constant fear,” Salamanca says. “Every time you hear a 'knock, knock, knock,' the kids go and run under the bed.”
Visit Save Immigrant Families USA for free documents, information on scams, know-your-rights clinics, updates on laws and other information for immigrant families in Ohio. You can also find more information on how to fight scams by visiting the Federal Trade Commission’s website.