As thousands of migrants arrived in the city over the past few months, immigrant rights advocates are raising concerns about the potential for scammers to take advantage of the moment.
Since April, 7,300 immigrants from the southern border have gone through the city’s shelter system, according to the Adams administration.
This influx of arrivals makes for a ripe opportunity for immigration law scams, according to experts.
“When you have sort of a crisis of sorts, or something in the news, that’s sort of fostering more fear in communities, people get more desperate to try to find a way to regulate their status and there's never enough resources,” said Liz Markuci, director of hotline services, training and policy development at Catholic Charities.
For the new arrivals, a likely scam could be people without a law license, like notaries, accountants or travel agents, offering legal services.
“In some countries, a notario is a lawyer and so people here get a notary license and try to use that as a way to make themselves appear legitimate in certain communities,” Markuci said.
There are also instances of suspended lawyers offering legal services to immigrants. This was the case of Carlos Moreno, who was sentenced to 1 to 3 years in state prison by the Manhattan district attorney last month.
Moreno collected thousands of dollars in legal fees from undocumented immigrants between 2017 and 2018 while his law license was suspended, according to the DA’s office.
He was also found guilty of defrauding clients with what is known as the “10-Year Green Card Scam,” a false claim that undocumented immigrants who have resided in the United States for over a decade can secure legal status.
This process, in which a person unknowingly applies for asylum, often puts clients at risk of removal from the United States. The burden of proof to win this type of case is exceedingly high, legal experts say.
Still, it’s a scam that advocates in the city have seen persist for years. Often faced with limited options, undocumented immigrants are prime targets for scammers who can manipulate them.
“If you go to two doctors, and one tells you you have cancer, and one tells you you don't, you want to believe in the one that tells you you don't have it,” Markuci said.
While this scam wouldn’t be applicable for the new arrivals, they are likely to be overcharged for legal services and become victims of wage theft, experts say.
There’s also the likelihood of people filing fabricated asylum claims on behalf of the new arrivals, putting them at risk of deportation.
“That does happen a lot,” said Luis Gomez Alfaro, an immigration attorney and an expert on the Immigration Podcast hosted by sister station NY1 Noticias. “There is a lot of places where they will just tell them what the fear [of persecution or torture] is, unnecessarily too because that doesn't help, or reuse documents from different cases.”
The potential for scammers to fill the void on an already overburdened legal infrastructure in the city, whether it’s private lawyers or nonprofits, is a big concern for the city.
“Our key message is if you need immigration legal advice, only go to a lawyer or someone who is accredited by the U.S. Department of Justice or an organization recognized by the Department of Justice,” said Shaina Coronel, director of communications at the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, said.
As migrants continue to arrive, city officials are stationed at Port Authority, where many of the migrants are now entering from, to provide information and guide people to the right resources, Coronel said.
The city recently soft-launched an asylum seeker “navigation center” aimed at helping enroll children in school, providing job referrals and placement and assisting with immigration paperwork.
According to advocates like Alfaro though, the city could be doing a lot more to help with the legal services needed by the new arrivals.
“They could fund that—they could hire a few attorneys dedicated just to filing all those asylums and defending them in court,” Alfaro said.