Washington: President Trump’s announcement of planned immigration raids in Los Angeles and other major US cities beginning Sunday has heightened fears and anxiety in targeted communities, leaving many seeking legal help susceptible to scams, advocates say.
“Announcements such as these, including the latest one of upcoming raids, unfortunately makes people scramble to find any sort of assistance,” said Jose Luis Garcia, the managing attorney at the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, based in Los Angeles.
Unlicensed immigration consultants, commonly known as notarios in Latin American communities, can cause serious harm to an immigrant’s legal case, experts say. This could be anyone who provides immigration-related services for a fee but who is not authorised to provide any sort of legal aid.
“Fear, need and anxiety are driving people to try to find some legal help,” said Rigo Reyes, the executive director of Los Angeles County’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Immigrants are pushed to “find someone who’s going to give them the answer they want to hear, even if it’s not real,” he said.
Immigrants in the US illegally are especially susceptible to scams as the threat of deportation looms. Immigration consultant offices are widely available and easily accessible, prompting many immigrants to choose unauthorised legal help over proper legal aid.
“These notarios are at every corner,” Reyes said. Also, he said, migrants may feel more comfortable with notarios. Many immigration consultants speak their native language, claim to charge less than a regular attorney and understand them culturally.
“It’s less intimidating. It feels more familiar,” he said.
Trump confirmed to reporters on Friday that a nationwide Immigration and Customs Enforcement operation would begin on Sunday. The raids will target undocumented immigrants with court removal orders but may also include “collateral” deportations, in which ICE agents detain those without legal status who are in the vicinity of those being targeted.
In some cases, immigration consultants put their own addresses on paperwork, Reyes warned. So when a follow-up or consultation is requested by ICE officials, consultants sometimes do not inform their clients, causing them to miss court dates, or resulting in other harmful consequences that can lead to an order of removal, he said.
In 2018, the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs received 270 complaints against immigration consultants, which showed a significant increase from previous years, Reyes said.
At the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, staff attorneys and others are gearing up for the possibility of ICE raids Sunday by reaching out to clients and family members who have pending orders of removal to keep track of their names and case numbers. They are also providing their clients with information about how to seek out authorised legal help — and showing them what legal immigration aid looks like.
“We make sure to tell them: Always ask about the individual’s background, ask for a [California Bar Association] card, make sure to keep all your original documents, be wary of signing blank forms,” Garcia said. “And above all, ask questions.”
Meanwhile, officials in many of the targeted cities nationwide issued statements of support for their immigrant communities and advised them of their rights and where they could seek legal aid.
Appearing on CNN’s ‘Anderson Cooper 360’ on Friday evening, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti criticised the ICE operation as chaotic and inhumane, disrupting the lives of many.
“These are people going to church wondering if there’s going to be somebody when they come out of services. These are folks going to a park, a picnic, celebrating birthdays,” Garcetti said. “It will spread fear to that entire community and to the US citizens that are a part of their families.”
On Saturday, the mayor sent this Twitter message to “all Angelenos: Here in Los Angeles, we will not be coordinating with ICE. Your city is on your side, we are in this together.”