President Bush's recent proposal to create a temporary guest worker program has created a new opening for scam 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 salesmen typically tell immigrants that they can buy documents that are needed 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 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 already 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 visa 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 workforce.
On the other side of the debate, however, many Republicans already 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 up to $3,000.
Victor Nieblas, a member of the Board of Governors of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., said that a weekly Spanish-language radio talk show he hosts 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 scam 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.
Rep. Linda Sanchez, whose 39th congressional district covers heavily immigrant communities in southern Los Angeles County, including Lakewood, Whittier, Lynwood and La Mirada, said Bush's proposal had immediately created a buzz among her constituents. While some had been approached by con artists, others wrongly viewed the plan as a new amnesty deal, Sanchez said.
And Eunsook Lee, executive director of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, said there was widespread confusion among Korean immigrants as well.
Koreans number around 500,000 in Southern California, and community leaders believe as many as 18% are undocumented.
"My brother thought that you could get a work permit for three years, work another three years, and then get a green card," said Thomas Yi, a South Korean whose sibling has lived illegally in Los Angeles for the past two years. Yi is already a legal resident.
"We had to explain to them that there was no green card attached to this proposal," said Lee.
Some of the confusion over Bush's proposal stemmed from the fact that the president himself made the announcement, prompting many to believe it was already law, and not just an idea, some community leaders said.
Among many immigrants who are unfamiliar with the American legislative system, "there isn't a differentiation between what is politics and what is the standard legislative process," said Salas.
Officials in the Los Angeles County department of consumer affairs said they had not received any complaints of fraud specifically relating to the Bush proposal. But community advocates said such reports probably would not have been filed yet.
"People don't normally find out that they have been deceived until many months afterward," said Robert Foss, legal director for the Central American Resource Center, a Los Angeles-based group that provides immigration services and community education. "I think there have been many people scammed, but they don't know it yet."
Moreover, many undocumented immigrants might not come forward to make a report for fear of deportation.
In the meantime, government officials say they are stepping up efforts to combat immigration fraud.
Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo said his office had prosecuted 18 immigration-related fraud cases since May and won 12 convictions.
The most typical cases involved people pretending to be certified immigration specialists and qualified lawyers, he said, adding that he expects to see more in the future.
"Bush's proposal has given a great platform to immigration consultants to sell their wares and take advantage of immigrants in our society," he said.