Predatory practices plaguing immigrant and refugee communities are outlined, discussed at a Northwest Justice Project summit
Published on Friday, June 10, 2005
By CECILIA KANG
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
Soon after he arrived in Seattle, Roberto Garcia Hernandez sought help from an unqualified immigration assistant. It was a crucial mistake that nearly forced him to return to his conservative hometown in Mexico, where he had been violently attacked for being gay.
A Russian immigrant placed her faith in a Russian-speaking mortgage broker in Seattle and was misled to sign a contract for a higher interest rate than initially had been promised.
In another part of the state, 70 low-income Latino families were duped into buying expensive computer equipment from Spanish-speaking salespeople who posed as representatives of the local school district.
These are just a few examples of myriad scams and predatory practices plaguing immigrant and refugee communities that were discussed yesterday at the Northwest Justice Project’s Immigrant and Refugee Consumer Education Summit.
Of course, the problems also exist in non-immigrant populations. But because of language and cultural barriers, immigrants are particularly vulnerable to the growing problem of predatory financial schemes, said keynote speaker Pramila Jayapal, who is the executive director of Hate Free Zone Washington. And in many cases, the perpetrators are people within the same ethnic communities of their victims. They use common language, culture and immigration experiences to form a natural bond of trust, even among strangers, she said.
“We’re talking about a very vulnerable population that needs access to financial resources,” Jayapal said. “They don’t have access to traditional financial institutions and don’t have the financial cushion that others have to rely on, so they are pushed into these desperate, emergency situations.”
According to the 2000 Census, 17 percent of Seattle’s population is foreign-born. And Washington is the fourth-largest refugee-resettlement state in the country.
At the daylong meeting at the Doubletree Hotel near Sea-Tac Airport, about 200 community advocates went through training that could be called Responsible Financial Practices 101. They learned the basics about understanding contracts and the way credit works. There were workshops on how to avoid predatory home, car and payday loans; how to manage debt; and how to steer clear of scams by immigration services and telephone services.
A popular scam among car dealers, according to the state Attorney General’s Office, involves allowing customers to take a car home, with the assurance that financing details can be completed later. Soon after, the customer is presented a contract with higher payments and interest rates than initially promised. By then, the buyer is attached to the car and is willing to accept the higher payments.
But experts said that predatory practices aimed at immigrants are often difficult to enforce because victims are less likely to complain. Those who are undocumented fear the risk of being exposed to immigration authorities. Others may have come from countries with authoritarian governments and are afraid of raising complaints.
“There are problems out there that we know about and hear about,” said Norma Chavez, who supervises one of the attorney general’s consumer resource centers. “But we often don’t have actual victims who come forward and we need those complaints to show there really is an issue out there.”
That’s what kept dozens of families in Eastern Washington from reporting a computer sales scam targeting Latino farming communities in 2003. Spanish-speaking salespeople from A+ Computer Program USA, then based in Portland, called families with children in the Wenatchee School District. They indicated that they were associated with the school district and persuaded parents of school children to buy more than $2,500 in computer equipment and software.
The salesmen promised a low annual interest rate for loans to buy the computers. But when it came time to sign the sales contract, the interest rate was much higher.
And in some instances, the salespeople threatened parents that the school performance of their children would suffer without the computers.
“They would say things like, ‘Do you want your kids to end up a farm worker like you?’ ” said Melissa Huelsman, a Seattle attorney who handled some of the cases against a financial institution that provided the loans for the computers through A+ Computer.
The computer salespeople fled the area after prosecutors began to investigate. But 70 clients brought lawsuits against the financial institution that operated with the company. The families and financial institution settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
Another major problem is the unauthorized practice of immigration law in ethnic communities, many immigration experts said.
Like many newcomers, Garcia Hernandez’s problems began when he sought immigration help from a Spanish-speaking immigration assistant, known as notario publicos (translated as notary public) in Latino communities.
Garcia Hernandez fled Mexico in 1999, seeking refuge in the United States after being attacked in his hometown of Morelia, Michoacan, because he is gay. His mother was a U.S. citizen, so he hoped he could gain permanent status here as her son.
The 38-year-old forklift operator at Dania Furniture in SeaTac rolled up the right sleeve of his navy blue jersey recently and pointed to a 3-inch scar above his elbow.
At a nightclub in Morelia years ago, a group of men surrounded Garcia Hernandez and began taunting him because of his sexual orientation. The confrontation escalated. A man broke a beer bottle on the bar counter and lunged at Garcia Hernandez, missing his chest but cutting deeply into his arm.
“I could not return,” Garcia Hernandez said. “My life would be over.”
On the recommendation of a friend, he sought help from a notario named Antonio Diaz to apply for residency. Garcia Hernandez thought he was seeing a lawyer because in Mexico and many Latin American countries,notarios are commonly known as attorneys, and sometimes they have even higher credentials than other lawyers.
The two met at the Burgermaster restaurant in the University District, and Garcia Hernandez said that Diaz gave him immigration documents to fill out. They were the wrong forms and soon Garcia Hernandez found himself in deportation hearings.
Under Washington state law, immigration assistants aren’t authorized to give legal advice.
In a telephone interview, Diaz denied advising Garcia Hernandez on his immigration application, saying he simply acted as a translator.
Garcia Hernandez is among hundreds of immigrants of all ethnicities around the state who have been threatened with deportation or fooled into paying large sums for promises of citizenship by immigration assistants.
In April, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested No Van Nguyen of Seattle on accusations of impersonating a federal immigration agent and promising Vietnamese immigrants they would become citizens for $3,000.
“This is a big problem because these (people) are taking advantage of the confusion and preying on people who are desperate to receive documentation,” said Jorge Madrazo, the consulate general of Mexico in Seattle. “Because people don’t understand the system here, they naturally turn to these notario publicos who are in the same community and say they can help.”
After appealing to the Mexican Consulate, Garcia Hernandez was referred to immigration attorney Manuel Rios.
The Seattle lawyer persuaded a judge to withhold his client’s deportation order after arguing that Garcia Hernandez should be granted asylum based on his experience of persecution in Mexico.
Rios then sent a letter to Diaz, saying his office has received at least six immigration cases in late 2003 from clients who had received inaccurate legal advice from Diaz.
All of those clients were placed into removal proceedings.
Diaz apologized in a letter to Rios: “I appreciate your attention and honesty regarding these cases. I am very sorry about what happened.”
P-I reporter Cecilia Kang can be reached at 206-448-8315 or firstname.lastname@example.org