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  • Juan M. Pedroza

Making Noncitizens’ Rights Real: Evidence from Immigration Scam Complaints

Updated: Jan 28

My latest article published by Law & Policy is now available:

Main Question: When noncitizens make claims to justice by reporting immigration scams, are immigration scams reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) positively associated with welcoming contexts of reception, even after accounting for immigration restrictionism?


Main results and implications: The results point to the potential benefits of investing in immigrant integration efforts, especially access to the safety net and access to justice. Specifically, access to food stamps, immigration attorneys, translation services, and nonprofit legal aid can help empower or enable noncitizens to make their rights real.


Abstract: Noncitizens seeking to make sense of US immigration systems encounter a labyrinth of information and deception. This paper is the first national study of scams targeting noncitizens seeking immigration legal services. I construct a county-year database (N = 3,135 over a four-year time period, 2011-2014) across secondary data sources to analyze the correlates of immigration scam complaints submitted to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). I find welcoming counties have more immigration scam complaints, and counties with exclusionary contexts tend to have less complaints. The results do not suggest scams are more prevalent in welcoming contexts because the actual number of scams is unknown. Instead, we can conclude noncitizens tend to come forward to report immigration scams in welcoming contexts of reception, even after accounting for exclusionary policies. A robust safety net proved the most reliable predictor of immigration scams reported to the FTC. Immigration attorneys, legal aid services, and language access were also positively associated with the number of FTC scam reports. Taken together, the results suggest immigrant-serving capacity and access to key services support noncitizens who report immigration scams while hostility toward immigrants may deter them from exercising those same rights.


Key contributions to immigration research and empirical research on immigration:

  1. The paper is the first national study of immigration scams.

  2. The role of welcoming contexts (e.g., access to the safety net and access to justice) as predictors of scam reporting is not eclipsed by exclusionary policies (e.g., deportation rates and state-level exclusionary policies targeting immigrations).

  3. By focusing on reports of immigration scams, the paper examines immigrant rights-claiming under unusually high levels of uncertainty where immigrants are targeted for vulnerable, conditional, temporary status.

  4. This is the first study to quantitatively assess variation in immigrant claims-making at the local level (by comparing activity across U.S. counties) and over time (2011-2014).

  5. I rely on multiple, continuous measures of welcoming versus restrictive contexts.

Data Sources


The paper analyses secondary and publicly-available data sources. The outcome variable reflects immigration scam reports obtained from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. As displayed below, the local noncitizen population accounts for some -- but not all -- of the variation in scam reports across counties.


Source: Pedroza calculations from FTC data (FOIA-2015-01244 Immigration Services)

The graph below displays variation in scam reports over time. It captures the number of counties without any complaints and compares them to counties with differing levels of scam reports. For context, immigration scam reports are slightly more common than anti-Hispanic hate crimes during this time period.

Source: Pedroza calculations from FTC data (FOIA-2015-01244 Immigration Services)

I rely on a dozen data sources to calculate multiple, continuous measures of welcoming contexts, restrictionist contexts, and other correlates of rights-claiming. See Table 1 in the paper for details on data sources and descriptive statistics across a dozen sources.


During the course of conducting this research, I compiled data on several hundred community-based organizations with a history of providing social and legal assistance for immigrants. I manually compared multiple data sources and then identified each organization in the Urban Institute's National Center for Charitable Statistics. The paper details those data sources, including the following:

Acknowledgements: Many people have lent detailed and helpful suggestions. I thank Aliya Saperstein, Tomás Jiménez, Michael Rosenfeld, John Meyer, Robb Willer, Woody Powell, David Grusky, Florencia Torche, Ariela Schachter, Aaron Silverman, Christof Brandtner, Aaron Horvath, Emily Carian, Amanda Mireles, Catherine Sirois, and members of graduate research workshops in the sociology department at Stanford University. Veronica Terriquez, Lily Pearl Balloffet, and the sociology department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, also provided helpful suggestions. The paper benefited from valuable feedback from anonymous reviewers and conference participants at the Law and Society Association, the Population Association of America, and the American Sociological Association. Erwin De Leon, Anne Schaufele, Joshua James, and Aaron Horvath assisted with data access. Jamein Cunningham and Ariela Schater provided methods insights. Melissa Diaz and Jeannette Rios provided research assistance. Natasha Pedroza closely read revised versions of the paper from start to finish: thank you. Any errors or oversights in the paper are my own. Fellowships from the Ford Foundation and Stanford University’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity—as well as support from Duncan Lawrence and Stanford’s Immigration Policy Lab—provided funding support.

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