RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Along with the NSA leaks, there's been a lot of talk on Capitol Hill this summer about immigration reform. It's raised the hopes of many undocumented migrants around the country. It's also raised the fears of consumer advocates. They worry about scam artists who promise immigrants they can help them secure legal status. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: A lot of people tried to discourage Eduardo Flores, but he was a man on a mission.
EDUARDO FLORES: I work in construction.
WANG: Construction. You make houses? Or...
FLORES: Air conditioning.
WANG: Air conditioning?
WANG: Flores has been in the business since he came to the U.S. as an unauthorized immigrant from Honduras in 2001. Today, he lives in Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., with his wife, two daughters and his mother-in-law in a two-bedroom apartment. Two years ago, trying to help a friend, he called up Luis Ramirez, someone his wife heard about on Spanish-language radio.
He said he was an immigration lawyer.
FLORES: Yeah, he told me every time.
WANG: But Ramirez wasn't a licensed attorney. Still, he told Flores he could help bail his friend out of jail with $4,000. Flores gave him the money, but Ramirez never posted the bail, and Flores's friend was eventually deported. It's a story of deception that's common among unauthorized immigrants, and it's becoming more so as the legislative process for immigration reform generates talk in the media, says Monica Vaca. She's an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Protection Bureau.
MONICA VACA: You do have con artists who are out there who use the headline to generate a little bit of confusion.
WANG: Confusion that can lure unsuspecting immigrants into paying a high price.
VACA: They don't just lose money. They might be losing something far more valuable.
WANG: Like eligibility to apply for a green card or citizenship, because someone who pretends to be a licensed legal services provider has incorrectly filled out a required immigration form, or sometimes not even submitted it at all. At that point, it's a consumer fraud issue, says attorney David Zetoony. He's a partner at the private law firm Bryan Cave in Washington, D.C. And after hearing news about scam artists pretending to be immigration lawyers, he took on a few cases.
DAVID ZETOONY: Yeah. Many people don't think of consumer protection law applying to immigrants. But like any other person in the United States, they get the protections of the consumer protection laws.
WANG: Even if they're not authorized immigrants. Even if they're here illegally.
ZETOONY: That's correct.
RICO REYES: This is the problem that I personally have been dealing with for the last 15 years.
WANG: That's how long Rico Reyes has been tracking immigration fraud at the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs. He says victims often hold out hope, even when they suspect they're being cheated.
REYES: Consumers wait until the very end before they convince themselves that they were defrauded. So it's not unusual for consumers to wait two, three, five years.
WANG: Recently, though, consumers have not waited to report a new fraud trend: scammers who say they can get immigrants on a waiting list for a permanent residency, or citizenship as soon as the president signs a new immigration laws - which, of course, hasn't happened and may not happen at all. Regardless, consumer advocates say immigration fraud often goes unreported, which brings us back to Eduardo Flores, who fell for a con and became a man on a mission.
FLORES: (Through translator) Many people are afraid of going to the police. Many people told me, Eduardo, don't do this. You'll have problems. You'll be deported.
WANG: You're not afraid?
WANG: Flores says he was angry he had been tricked into giving $4,000 to a con man.
FLORES: (Through translator) Who knows how many people he had hurt? I was going to try and stop him. I told him I have faith in God that I will see you in court one day.
WANG: And he did. He and his attorney David Zetoony won a civil suit against Luis Ramirez in January. Last December, Ramirez also pleaded guilty to three felony charges for obtaining money under false pretenses from other immigrants. He's now serving two years in jail. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.