Desperate for work, Gerardo Llanque, a Peruvian immigrant, visited an employment agency in search of a job five years ago. He paid $120 in exchange for a temporary construction position. When Llanque arrived at the address where his job was supposed to be, he found an abandoned house.
“It can be exasperating not to find work, and you get desperate,” said Llanque to a translator.
When Llanque returned to confront the employment agency, workers told him the person who promised him the job was no longer with the company and that he should return at 9 p.m. that night. When Llanque demanded to speak to someone, employment agency workers threatened to call the police.
An upturn in fraud against Latin American immigrants searching for jobs or seeking immigration has sparked an investigation into 51 Queens businesses. Conducted by the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center and the New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) – a non-profit organization based in Jackson Heights – the study surveyed locals and conducted “mystery shopper” investigations, where trained community members examined employment agencies and Immigration Service Providers (ISP). Mystery shoppers surveyed agencies along Roosevelt Avenue, focusing on the contracts, signage and disclosure agreements that are germane to immigration. According to NICE executive director Valeria Treves, the study illustrated that laws protecting immigrants from fraud are either ineffective or unenforced.
“The report grew out of necessity to further investigate what was going on in the community,” said Treves. “Those rules and regulations are being routinely violated.”
According to Treves, the start of the recession brought a flood of complaints against employment agencies, grifting desperate and jobless people out of their money. Eighty percent of people surveyed during the study had gone to an employment agency, paid $122, and did not receive a job. The advance fee was not refunded.
One mystery shopper was promised a green card if she forked over $7,000.
A common violation surrounds ISP officials offering unlawful legal advice. More than a quarter of the study’s mystery shoppers received legal guidance beyond the scope of what the individual was trained to provide. In most cases, Treves said, the advice was erroneous.
Treves said the language barrier provides other opportunities for scammers to take advantage of those new to the country. According to Treves, in Spanish, the word “notario” means a high-powered lawyer. However in English, a notary is simply someone who acts as a witness but does not have any legal training.
While Treves was unable to provide exact data on how many Latin American immigrants are victims of fraud annually, she said the number is sorely underrepresented.
“Victims of fraud are nervous about coming out,” said Treves. “They are worried that they’ll get in trouble with immigration.”
To combat fraud in the Latin American community, Treves says her group hopes to close the loophole for scammers by ending employment agency’s advance fees. She said they also want to push for a tighter definition of the unauthorized practice of law to prohibit those without proper training from giving legal advice to those in need.
Llanque said his experience made him wary of turning to agencies for help. He fears the company that scammed him controls other local employment offices and he could become a victim of fraud again.