Federal officials on Thursday announced a nationwide initiative to warn immigrants about -- and to crack down on -- scam artists who prey on people seeking immigration help.
The announcement was made in Washington, D.C., as well as Fresno and six other cities across the nation that have been part of a federal government effort to learn more about the problem, and will be the initial focus on the effort.
"This is a consumer-fraud issue," said Benjamin Wagner, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, a federal law enforcement region that includes Fresno.
Wagner noted that the San Joaquin Valley's immigrant community is a "vulnerable group" when it comes to scams. They often speak limited English and have a low level of trust for immigration authorities.
The nationwide program will focus on taking more aggressive law enforcement action against those committing fraud, working to educate people on how to recognize scams, and coordinating efforts between state and federal agencies to combat the fraud.
Fresno, as well as Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and San Antonio, was a region that federal authorities studied.
The choice was perfect, said Isabel Machado, a Clovis immigration attorney.
Statistics aren't kept, but Machado estimated thousands are affected locally.
"People are getting scammed every day," she said. It starts with people looking for lawful assistance, maybe help with obtaining a work permit or a green card. The prices charged, Machado said, are often exorbitant.
Sometimes, people are charged for services or resources that are provided for free by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
If the people are subsequently caught with fraudulent or improper paperwork, they can be deported -- and the immigration scammer is never caught, officials said.
"These are people that know better, but they just cheat the people out of money," said Don Riding, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Fresno.
One sure sign of a possible scam, authorities said, is a promise that an immigration benefit can be obtained faster than usual.
Authorities on Thursday said it is going to take time to earn the trust of immigrants and inform them of their legal options, as well as to weed out unscrupulous immigration consultants.
"There's not a quick fix to this," Wagner said. "This is a longer-term problem."