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  • Juan M. Pedroza

Immigration Scams (PAA 2017)

At the 2017 annual meeting of the Population Association of America (PAA) this week, I am presenting my dissertation research. A panel on the effects of immigration enforcement includes my paper on the relationship between deportation rates and housing instability. In this post, I highlight another paper from my dissertation: a poster I will be presenting at PAA on immigration legal services fraud. I set out to answer the following: where are scams coming to light, and what role do immigrant integration efforts play in identifying scams?

To download a copy of my poster with preliminary findings, click here.

Immigration Legal Services Fraud

Absent Congressional immigration reform, noncitizens seeking to apply for lawful residency or naturalization encounter a bureaucratic labyrinth and fraudulent legal service providers looking to take advantage of applicants. In the process, access to citizenship has also become a costly venture, which fuels incentives to commit legal services fraud against immigrants.

Immigration scams are consumer crimes. The most notorious of these involve ‘notarios’ (Spanish for “notaries”). Notarios have taken advantage of immigrant clients by falsely promising naturalization and presenting themselves as lawyers. Clients unfamiliar with US law typically assume notarios know best, in part because the word notario is a false cognate commonly understood in Latin America as a synonym for a professional legal practitioner on par with a lawyer. Today, immigration scams have proliferated and include legal malpractice, unauthorized practice of law, notary fraud, telemarketing schemes, email phishing, and websites selling and misrepresenting immigration services. These types of crimes are under-reported but are also common knowledge in immigrant communities and widely-documented in qualitative research on unauthorized migration and legalization.


PAA 2017 Poster

Until recently, we have had little systematic information on where immigration scams are reported. My research analyzes cases of noncitizens and their networks denouncing fraud to an arm of the federal government (Federal Trade Commission, FTC) in efforts to shine a light on the consequences of a broken system overseen by another arm of the state (Department of Homeland Security).

Questions: I examine FTC data to determine where we observe complaints denouncing immigration-related scams and consumer crime. I answer the following questions:

[a] Where are noncitizens coming forward to report immigration legal services fraud?

[b] Do immigrant integration efforts in the nonprofit and public sectors predict where immigration scams come to light?

[c] Do such integration efforts matter after accounting for correlates of consumer crime and local immigration climate?

Approach & Main Results: I analyze the total number of FTC complaints using count models to account for county-year variation between 2011 and 2014. I find immigrants are more likely to report fraud to the FTC in locations with robust bureaucratic incorporation of Hispanics and capacity to provide legal services.

Legal aid capacity: Legal aid capacity predicts reports of immigration scams filed with the FTC. Where such capacity exists, and especially where it's robust, we observe more noncitizens reporting fraud. In addition, nonprofit staff capacity (non-executive salaries in 2013 dollars adjusted for the local population) also positively predict more FTC reports, which suggests legal aid presence and staff capacity help identify scams.

I constructed a unique legal aid database for this project. Nonprofits are measured using multiple sources: National Center for Charitable Statistics, Department of Justice's list of pro-bono service providers, and immigration advocacy groups. The total number of nonprofits are adjusted for the local population and lagged one year prior to observed FCT complaints. All nonprofits (over 700) filing with the IRS between 2011 and 2014 are included in county-year analyses but only in those years where they file Form 990. I mapped California organizations in the database using Google maps.

Food stamp access: If we measure the ratio of Hispanics receiving food stamps compared to all Hispanics living in poverty, we find the receipt of safety net services is associated with a rise in the expected number of FTC complaints. The relationship between food stamp access (using ACS data lagged one year) and reporting of scams suggests the public sector plays a stronger role than nonprofits. The difference may be due to the difference in scale between the two sectors. After all, nonprofit capacity and funding is less dispersed and generally a fraction of what state- and local-administered food stamp programs can provide.

Local political and policy climate: Republican voter support and deportation rates help explain why some places report fewer-than-expected complaints. After accounting for variation in local climate, the association between immigrant integration efforts is reduced but not completely diminished. The results suggest these FTC data are not capturing the prevalence of immigration fraud, except in the unlikely scenario where deportations and Republican strength lower incentives to defraud immigrants seeking legal services.

Republican voter support is measured as the proportion of votes for Republican candidates in the general elections preceding the years of study (2008 elections prior to 2011 and 2012; 2012 elections prior to 2013 and 2014). Deportation rates are measured as the number of removals and returns reported under the Secure Communities program (adjusted for the local noncitizen population).

To download a copy of my poster with preliminary findings, click here.



In addition to the data sources above, I also account for variation in anti-Hispanic hate crimes and local arrest rates for a range of offenses reported to the FBI. Unlike legal aid capacity and food stamp access, none of these are reliable predictors of immigration scams. Perhaps due to noncitizens' apprehension about coming out of the shadows, immigration scams seem to be a type of consumer crime which is generally either unrelated or weakly associated with other kinds of arrests and crime.

I also control for Google search activity for immigration legal services (in Spanish) captured by Google Trends. Below is a chart displaying the rise and fall in relevant Google search activity, which tends to spike when national debates around immigration reform escalate. Interest in work permits, notaries, and immigration lawyers coincided with federal decisions regarding the Dream Act, DACA, and DAPA, but interest in "amnesty" generally waned after the failure of the Dream Act.

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