Con artists cashing in on desire for `Bush visas'

Immigrants pay in rush to legalize their status

March 14, 2004|By Ann M. Simmons | Ann M. Simmons,LOS ANGELES TIMES

President Bush's recent proposal to create a temporary guest-worker program has created a new opening for con artists eager to capitalize on the confusion surrounding the yet-to-be approved plan.

Unscrupulous notary publics, lawyers and self-styled "immigration experts" have been selling services and enrollment documents, profiting from the hope among many illegal immigrants that the plan might allow them to legalize their status.

The salespeople typically tell immigrants that they can buy documents necessary to be considered for Bush's plan, community leaders said. In some cases, illegal immigrants have been paying to guarantee a place on a nonexistent visa waiting list.

"People are so desperate to legalize their status that when they hear from somebody that there is a possibility, it's just like a green light," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, an immigrant advocacy and support group. "It's a sign of hope, and people cling to that hope."

While some immigrants believe that participation in the plan would guarantee permanent residency, others assume it would allow them to become citizens.

In reality, Bush's plan - if it ever became law - would allow some number of illegal immigrants working in the country to apply for a guest-worker program and remain legally in the country for three years. The workers could eventually compete with would-be immigrants outside the United States for a limited number of permanent legal residency slots. Those failing to secure a place would have to leave the country when their guest-worker visas expired.

The lack of any guarantee of citizenship or permanent residency has been a major point of criticism of the plan among immigrant activists, who say the guest workers will become a second-class work force.

On the other side of the debate, however, many Republicans are criticizing Bush's plan for going too far to assist illegal immigrants. Creating a guest-worker program will reward people who entered the country illegally and will spur more illegal border crossings, those critics say.

As that debate goes on, reports have surfaced in cities across the country of people claiming to be immigration specialists going door to door in predominantly immigrant neighborhoods, offering help getting visas connected to the Bush proposal. In some cases, they promise to get green cards related to Bush's plan for fees of as much as $3,000.

Victor Nieblas, a member of the Board of Governors of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said that his weekly Spanish-language radio talk show had been inundated with calls inquiring about the cost of the application for the "Bush visa" and the requirements for enrolling in the plan.

"We have to explain to them that there is nothing like an application, and the proposal is only an idea right now," said Nieblas. The information is needed to counteract con artists who tell immigrants "that it's available now, it's ready. You need to sign your contract now, and file your paperwork now," he said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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