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Con artists move in on alien amnesty program

Authorities are gearing up for a boom in bogus documents as unethical elements try to take advantage of the new United States immigration law. Since passage last year of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) have expected to see a plethora of fake rent receipts, utility bills, and other papers tailored to the requirements of the law.

And, as expected, there have been reports of unscrupulous consultants, notaries public, and others trying to take advantage of aliens as they seek to become legal residents.

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Two weeks ago, INS agents seized more than 150 counterfeit documents and arrested two major suppliers of bogus papers in Los Angeles. The seized files included ID cards and other counterfeit papers that were back-dated in an apparent attempt to establish the five-year residency required for amnesty under the new law.

In March, federal authorities arrested an immigration consultant from Chula Vista, near San Diego, for allegedly selling forged rent receipts to illegal aliens applying for legal status.

At the state and local levels a number of task forces are preparing to probe consumer complaints of illegal, unethical, or misleading practices carried out by immigration consultants, lawyers, and others.

``The vultures who prey on frightened and confused immigrants are already in business,'' says John Van de Kamp, California's attorney general, who has sent a letter to all district and city attorneys in California urging them to investigate ``amnesty scams.''

Immigration has always attracted its share of illegal activity, particularly forged documentation. For years, underground entrepreneurs have been turning out fraudulent papers, mainly ``green cards,'' to make people appear to be legal residents.

The new law, however, creates a new area of potential demand for counterfeit documents. Those applying for legalization under the amnesty provisions, which began May 5, have to prove they have lived continuously in the US since Jan. 1, 1982. That means producing rent receipts, utility bills, payroll records, and other papers - many of which are relatively easy to counterfeit.

The law also requires employers to check various documents to verify the legal status of newly hired workers. This is expected to increase the number of social security cards, passports, driver's licenses, and other papers rolling off underground presses.

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``It is just like adding a new line in a store,'' says Allen Wuhrman, head of the criminal investigations unit in the INS's San Diego office. ``There are millions of people who have to come up with documentation.''

With key provisions of the law just beginning to take effect, authorities say, it will be a while before many of the phony papers surface. But reports of amnesty ``packages'' containing several different fraudulent documents to show residency, and often fetching several thousand dollars apiece, have already been circulating in several states.

Investigators say the vendors who produce these phony papers run the gamut, from ``mom and pop'' enterprises to sophisticated rings.

The task of detecting the amnesty forgeries will fall to INS examiners at regional processing centers. Although the agency doesn't have the personnel to check every document, authorities contend they should be able to spot most cases of fraud, since each applicant has to be interviewed.

``At first it is going to be difficult,'' says Victor Johnston, an investigator with the INS's regional office in Dallas. ``We will have to look for patterns.''

More conspicuous is the problem of unscrupulous immigration consultants. Although there have been few prosecutions yet, authorities say the number of complaints against notaries public and others is rising. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) is receiving several complaints a week on a hot line it has set up in California. The state attorney general's office had been looking into at least 20 cases of alien exploitation.

The abuses take several forms. One involves consultants who promise results for amnesty applications, even though there are no quick or sure fixes. Some aliens pay hefty fees up front - and then never see the consultant again. Overcharging, misleading advertising, and people's practicing law without a license are other concerns.

To crack down on con artists, a number of watchdog groups are being set up. Task forces have been recently established in Los Angeles and San Diego made up of representatives from prosecutors' offices, the legal community, the INS, and police departments.

Elsewhere, groups already established to monitor the immigration law are trying to probe consumer complaints as well. The American Bar Association is drawing up a consumer guide for aliens on how to avoid getting ripped off when seeking legal assistance.

``The percentages are such that there are going to be some cases of unethical if not illegal activity by lawyers,'' says Craig Baab, staff director of the ABA's coordinating committee on immigration law.

Despite these efforts, law enforcement agencies won't be able to run down every complaint. ``The only way to deal with the problem is consumer education and outreach,'' says Linda Wong of MALDEF.

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