Immigrants targeted by scams are seeking justice. Here’s how to help them get it

A sculpture of Lady Justice

New research identifies trends in what types of justice victims of immigration scams are seeking and offers recommendations for policymakers and law enforcement.

Juan Manuel Pedroza
Assistant Professor of Sociology Juan Manuel Pedroza

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Assistant Professor of Sociology Juan Manuel Pedroza released new findings from the first nationwide study of immigration scams that target noncitizens. His prior report from this research compared where these types of scams were being reported across the U.S. to show how differences in local policies and services may affect the likelihood of immigrants coming forward to make reports. Now, his latest paper takes a deep dive into the scam reports themselves, identifying trends in what types of justice immigrants are seeking, and offering recommendations for policymakers and law enforcement agencies on how to expand access to justice.

“This follow-up study allowed us to learn from the voices of those most affected by immigration scams,” Pedroza said. “This is essential because the people who speak up and report scams did so often at great personal risk. They want scammers to be held accountable, and our legal system can do more to make that happen.” 

For this research, Pedroza collaborated with Anne Schaufele—an assistant professor of law and director of the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic at the University of the District of Columbia—and with several UCSC student researchers who were supported by the Institute for Social Transformation’s Building Belonging program. The UCSC research team reviewed a set of 1,040 consumer complaints submitted to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) between 2011 and 2015. These reports documented scams that either offered fake immigration services or extorted payments by threatening deportation. Immigration scams come in many forms, from classic “notario fraud” to telemarketing, phishing emails, and fake websites.

Victims of this type of fraud can end up losing large sums of money. In the reports analyzed by Pedroza’s team, half of the individuals who said they had lost money ended up losing between $500 and $10,000, with the median amount paid to scammers totaling nearly $700.  

Experts believe these immigration scams are substantially underreported. Victims face language and knowledge barriers in understanding what their rights are and where and how to file a report. And, perhaps more importantly, doing so could risk revealing their immigration status, and victims fear being deported. These vulnerabilities, combined with a shortage of legitimate providers of immigration services, create an abundance of opportunity for scammers. But some victims still choose to fight back. And the new paper reveals why.  

In more than half of the scam reports that Pedroza’s team analyzed, submitters believed that the targeting of immigrants by scammers was an act of discrimination. They submitted reports in part because of their own personal concerns about the violation of their privacy and potential exposure of their personal information, but they also hoped to protect other members of the immigrant community. They wanted scammers shut down by law enforcement.

About an additional third of reports took a different approach. In these instances, victims of scams appealed exclusively to their rights as consumers and demanded refunds. These reports focused on the affected individual and presented the issue primarily as a business problem with a financial solution. The remaining 14% of reports demanded both consumer protections and protection from discrimination for themselves and other immigrants.

“The themes from these reports likely demonstrate both what immigrant scam victims themselves are concerned about and what they understand American values to be,” Pedroza said. “Both factors may have affected how they chose to frame their appeals for justice. And by claiming their consumer rights and their rights to fair treatment, they’re showing a sense of belonging within a more expansive notion of what it means to be American.” 

The paper also offers policy solutions for how to respond to these appeals by shutting down scams and returning victims’ lost money and personal documents. Coauthor Schaufele led this section of the paper and advanced a range of options to ensure access to justice for immigrants based on perspective from her years of experience working with victims of scams.

The study describes how laws around the marketing of immigration services and the unauthorized practice of immigration law could be tightened to crack down on scammers. Meanwhile the number of legitimate service providers should also be increased through either a right to government-appointed counsel in immigration proceedings or new laws and processes that allow for more pro bono and legal aid representation. The paper’s authors also call for an overall increased number of accredited representatives, including some licensed and qualified non-attorneys. 

The process for reporting scams could also be improved by streamlining through a single agency, allowing for anonymous submissions through an intermediary, and educating consumers about the process through a multilingual campaign. Partnerships between the public sector and community-based nonprofits can help to build inroads into immigrant communities for education efforts and to safely return personal documents recovered by law enforcement, but this might require a geographic expansion of nonprofit operating areas to match need. Better Business Bureaus also play an important role in education and reporting, with one-fifth of the scam reports analyzed by Pedroza’s team originating from a local Better Business Bureau. 

The FTC could litigate more cases through class action lawsuits to get the maximum possible amount of financial compensation for victims and can then advertise the settlements so that additional victims can come forward for refunds. Local and state agencies can also identify and act on any complaints submitted to the FTC from their jurisdictions, and should operate under the assumption that each complaint is evidence of additional victims. Undercover investigations and legal procedures to protect the identity of victims could help law enforcement to root out scammers while minimizing risk to immigrant communities. And resulting fines levied against scammers can be placed in a restitution fund for victims. 

The paper also recommends expanding the use of the U Visa—which is intended to protect victims of crime who cooperate with law enforcement—to cover more types of consumer crime, including immigration scams. This expansion of the U Visa could be accomplished either through new laws or through new administrative guidance on how to interpret existing law and should be accompanied by additional resources to process these visas in a timely manner.  

These types of efforts would go a long way toward ending scams that harm some of our nation’s most vulnerable communities, Pedroza says. 

“That’s something that everyone living in America should care about, regardless of their personal immigration status,” he said. “Doing nothing creates incentives for scammers to continue innovating schemes with impunity. There’s no telling who they may target next if we don’t act. Tackling this issue would help us all to build a more just and equitable society for everyone.”