A group of high-ranking local, state and federal law enforcement officials said Monday that after nearly a year of operations, a joint task force has minimized fraud cases linked to the nation's amnesty program, winning prosecutions against 10 immigration consultant firms and investigating more than 50 other agencies.
"We think that over the past 11 months, the program has been successful," said Los Angeles City Atty. James Hahn, who chairs the interagency Immigration Law Task Force. "We have responded to hundreds of complaints."
But Hahn warned that despite the investigations, fraud committed against amnesty applicants by private "immigration consultants" will probably rise with just three months to go in the legalization program.
"There is a lot more fraud going on out there than we're hearing about," said Hahn, who was accompanied at a news conference by these task force members: Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, U.S. Atty. Robert Bonner, Senior Assistant State Atty. Gen. Herschel Elkins and Immigration and Naturalization Service Regional Commissioner Harold W. Ezell.
Urged to Complain
The task force members urged amnesty applicants who suspect that they have been victimized by immigration consultants to file complaints with the task force. Immigrants who have not heard from the INS within a month after applying with the aid of a private firm "have reason to worry," Hahn said.
The task force was created last year by law enforcement officials to thwart an expected wave of fraud surrounding the amnesty program. Soon after the yearlong amnesty period began last May, prosecutors began receiving complaints that notaries and other immigration consultants were charging high fees to immigrants for poor service, holding onto original documents until immigrants paid full fees and, in some cases, taking thousands of dollars in fees and then vanishing.
Pleaded No Contest
Last week, the owner of a major Los Angeles immigration consultant agency was convicted, along with two of his employees, for violating state laws in the handling of amnesty applications. After the three men pleaded no contest to several criminal charges, Municipal Court Commissioner Barry Kohn levied fines totaling $19,710 against El Norte Inc., the immigration consultant.
Hahn said that though the number of fraud cases now prosecuted or under active investigation may not appear significant, he expects the numbers to rise dramatically when the amnesty period ends May 4.
By then, Hahn said, some illegal aliens who had thought their amnesty cases were being handled by private consultants will learn that their cases had in fact not been filed because they had not finished making payments. Such failure to file cases is illegal under state law.
'Nothing We Can Do'
"We can prosecute con artists past that date, but there is nothing we can do to restore missed amnesty opportunities for victims if they miss the May 4 deadline," Hahn said.
While federal immigration officials agreed Monday that they expect fraud reports to rise in the final three months of the amnesty program, they added that the majority of amnesty applications received thus far do not appear to be marred by fraud.
"It's surprising how many (immigration consultants) have done a good job," Ezell said.