SAN DIEGO — U.S. and Mexican authorities Monday announced what they called an unprecedented crackdown on scam artists who fraudulently charge high fees but never deliver on promises to help illegal immigrants gain legal U.S. residency.
The initiative is said to be the first of several federal efforts to prosecute bogus immigration consultants and to encourage skittish immigrants to report such frauds.
As evidence of the problem, U.S. Atty. Charles G. La Bella announced the guilty plea of a San Diego woman who bilked at least 99 immigrants over eight years by posing as a U.S. immigration official and selling documents aimed at winning them legal status.
Valerie Pena, 43, pleaded guilty Monday in federal court to eight felony counts of document fraud and nine counts of impersonating a federal officer. La Bella said Pena, who charged immigrants $800 to $2,400 for services never completed and documents that proved to be phony, was a "poster child" for a worrisome crime trend along the border.
She is to be sentenced in U.S. District Court in San Diego on Feb. 8.
"She preyed upon people who were in this country illegally, knowing full well that these would be the last people to approach law enforcement for any sort of help or assistance in connection with Pena's fraudulent activities," La Bella said during a news conference.
Under the new initiative, U.S. federal authorities will team with state and San Diego officials to track down tips received from immigrants who believe they have been defrauded. To protect confidentiality, callers need not identify themselves. The local Crime Stoppers hotline (619-235-TIPS) also will field anonymous tips.
Fraud complaints made to the Mexican Consulate will be forwarded to American law enforcement officials. Consular officials unveiled a television spot urging migrants in the United States to report suspected immigration fraud.
"Valerie Pena is only one of what we believe to be many predators in San Diego and across the border that are using the fear of people who don't want to report and who are using the hope of people who want to come to America or be legally in America," said San Diego City Atty. Casey Gwinn.
Although officials described the fraud problem as widespread and worsening, they gave no estimate of how many con artists are operating or how many migrants have been bilked.
La Bella said Pena's scam was the most extensive immigration fraud operation that authorities have encountered and differed from others because she claimed at various times to be an officer of the Immigration and Naturalization Service or Border Patrol. Assistant U.S. Atty. Amalia L. Meza said Pena, working out of her home and the conference room of an Anaheim motel, gave immigrants fake documents and made up excuses for delays in final paperwork. Pena squelched complaints by threatening victims with deportation.
Pena was arrested in May after a 10-month investigation led by the INS. The complaints had been passed along by Mexican consular officials.
In an interview before her arrest, she contended that she had helped about 5,000 immigrants gain legal status, mostly for free, for 12 years. She said her clients included immigrants from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
La Bella said the victims will stay on U.S. soil as material witnesses until the investigation is completed. Besides facing a prison sentence, Pena could be ordered to pay restitution.