LOS ANGELES -- For several years, Oswaldo Rafael Cabrera touted his services as an immigration attorney in advertisements, social media posts and interviews with Spanish-language news outlets.
Unfortunately for his many clients, Cabrera was not a lawyer. He wasn't legally qualified to offer any kind of help on immigration matters despite the large fees he charged. Accused of grand theft and other violations, he pleaded guilty in 2017 and was sentenced to 62 months in state prison.
Cabrera is just one example of the many people who prey on immigrants as they try to navigate the labyrinth of U.S. immigration law. Some pretend to be attorneys. Others offer supposedly expert guidance for a fee, even though they are not permitted to do so.
Widespread lack of knowledge about U.S. immigration law and its many requirements makes immigrants vulnerable to being taken. Nearly half of immigrants in California, and 45% nationwide, feel they don't have enough information about U.S. immigration policy to understand how it affects them and their families, according to a nationwide survey of immigrants conducted by The Times in partnership with Kaiser Family Foundation.
Impostors feed on the hopes of people who may have little realistic chance of obtaining the relief they want. Worse, by applying for a work permit or status that their clients are not qualified for, they may be exposing those clients to deportation.
What are the common types of scams?
"One of the stories that we just heard over and over again [was], 'I gave some guy $10,000 who told me he could get me a work permit, and I never heard from him again,'" said Jackie Vimo, senior policy analyst at the nonprofit National Immigration Law Center, which has done focus groups with immigrants. The dollar amounts vary, she said, "but the reality is, that's widespread."
Unfortunately for many immigrants, the work permit, visa or other relief they want often isn't legally possible — or is available only to a small percentage of those seeking it.
"The fact that our immigration system is broken and, for most people, there aren't clear paths to adjust their status is one of the reasons that immigrants are so vulnerable" to fraudsters, Vimo said.
Work permits, for example, are available only for a few types of applicants, such as those with temporary protected status or long-standing applications for asylum, said Daniel Sharp, chief of the Los Angeles County Office of Immigrant Affairs.
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