By AP News
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Latin American migrants making their often-arduous journey to the United States frequently fall victim to scams that can amount to thousands of dollars in losses paid to fraudulent businesses that spread disinformation and prey on the vulnerable.
The scammers range from human traffickers — often referred to as coyotes — to social media influencers, and many of them fraudulently pose as work recruiters, legal advisors or immigration coaches.
Most of the impostors take advantage of the many twists and turns in U.S. immigration policy, tricking migrants into paying for fake legal advice, work visas, political asylum or alternative ways to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
About a quarter of migrants surveyed earlier this month said they received messages offering immigration services and jobs, mainly via Facebook and WhatsApp. Two thirds of the 210 surveyed said they fell victim to some sort of fraud or disinformation. One migrant said he spent $1,500 on a form that turned out to be fake.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This report was a collaboration among Verificado, Conexión Migrante, The Associated Press, Data-Pop Alliance and PolitiFact. It was produced with support from the International Center for Journalism’s Disarming Disinformation project, with primary funding from The Scripps Howard Foundation.
Research team: Daniela Mendoza, Patricia Mercado, Julie Ricard, Abril Mulato, Gabriela Martínez, María Ramírez Uribe, Angélica Villegas, Anna Carolina Spinardi, Yvette Yañez and Ivonne Valdés.
In Mexico, 5,684 complaints of crimes against migrants were reported from 2016 to November 2022, according to Mexico’s interior ministry. Of these, 1,849 were classified as illicit trafficking, 2,655 as theft and only eight as fraud.
Pursuing a fraud complaint is complicated. Migrants typically enlist the help of an independent organization such as Center for Migrant Rights, the nonprofit Al Otro Lado or a migrant shelter like CafeMin. Migrants often continue their attempt to cross the border, and if they succeed, they abandon their case.
As a result, misinformation and scams continue to flourish — and go unpunished, with scammers using social networks such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Tiktok to target migrants.
Migrants can lose anywhere from $1 to $20,000 per person overall in the scams, according to social media posts monitored during May and June and testimonies collected from migrants in early June.
Mercedes Pérez got in touch via social media with Jaime Díaz Márquez, who posed as an employee of an American religious organization and promised to get political asylum in the U.S. for her and 14 relatives. Pérez said he asked for $55 for each family member in exchange for processing a parole, a temporary permit the U.S. grants for urgent humanitarian reasons to allow migrants to stay in the country for at least a year without a visa.
In a Facebook Live broadcast, Díaz Márquez assured the family they would be able to pick up their papers and cross the border legally on Dec. 9, 2022. He later deleted videos and didn’t post again. Mercedes said she lost $770, and received nothing in return.
She reported the alleged fraud to Al Otro Lado, and was directed to file a complaint with local authorities. Ultimately, she declined to do so for fear of retaliation.
Díaz Márquez didn’t respond to multiple attempts seeking comment via telephone and WhatsApp.
Al Otro Lado says migrants affected by scammers rarely report fraud for fear of being deported or jeopardizing their entry into the U.S.
Evelyn Reyes, a Mexican native, said her husband paid about $2,000 and mailed his passport to a person supposedly named Alberto who he contacted via Facebook. The money was supposed to go toward a round-trip flight and a visa for the passport, which was supposed to be delivered to him in Mexico City. But he lost the money, and his passport.
“When he arrived, there was nothing — just ghosts,” Reyes said.
Jorge Gallo, regional press officer for the UN’s International Organization for Migration, said that many migrants “get into huge debts to be able to pay for the services of these coyotes and in many cases they lose everything.”
Gallo says coyotes sometimes simply abandon migrants in the middle of a border crossing, exposing them to danger and even risking their lives.
Then there are social media influencers who offer legal services without being lawyers. Take Darío Andrés, who advertises his services on TikTok and Instagram, where he has more than 500,000 followers.
On his Instagram profile, the self-styled lawyer and partner José Rafael Román Argote, offer migrants advice from Florida. But a search of the 50 bar associations across the U.S. show neither of them registered.
Attempts to speak to Andrés and Argote via WhatsApp messages, TikTok, Instagram and calls were not answered.
These kinds of online personalities share information about immigration procedures as bait to their followers, to later sell them advice that is not always legally sound or is even misinformation.
U.S. policies have shifted often, sowing confusion among migrants and creating opportunity for scammers. Title 42, which ended May 11, denied asylum on grounds of preventing spread of COVID-19 but was applied unevenly. And U.S. authorities created an opaque system of exemptions that allowed select organizations to pick who qualified for exemptions but their names were not made public and their selection criteria were often a mystery.
After Title 42, the main ways to enter the country are with a mobile app called CBP One, which relies on a lottery of 1,250 slots daily at land crossings with Mexico, and parole for up to 30,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans a month who apply online with a financial sponsor and arrive at an airport.
Mexico’s Center for Migrant Rights says it has noticed an increase in online migrant recruitment fraud since 2016, especially through ads on Facebook. While the center does not offer specific figures, the digital survey carried out among migrants indicated that 13% of the total respondents received false job offers.
A U.S. employer who wants to hire seasonal migrants — in agriculture, for example — must have a temporary labor certification. The processing of visas is referred to private agencies that search for workers.
Jocelyn Reyes, CDM’s director of Promotion, Education and Leadership Development, says workers’ recruitment process has been irregular, informal, poorly documented and opaque since the temporary work system between the United States and Mexico was created.
Reyes says that recruiting agencies have been able to monopolize the process by having access to information about job opportunities in the U.S. and arranging the H-2 visas that allow workers to work temporarily in the U.S.
Recruiters often impose fees on migrants interested in accessing job opportunities, something that is illegal, according to the CDM.
At the same time, the Fraud Prevention Department of the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, Mexico, where the largest number of visas for temporary agricultural work are processed, said that from 2019 to date the number of messages to their hotline that report fraud have increased from 12% to 15%.
Some scammers pose as companies authorized to hire temporary workers in the United States. They might charge for a criminal background check, which is not necessary and which they never actually carry out, according to the migrant rights center.
Samantha Hernández, a spokeswoman for the CafeMin shelter that receives migrants from Latin America and Central America in Mexico City, says misinformation online leads many migrants to believe they need documents of safe passage to go through the Mexican capital.
Laura Ortiz, originally from El Salvador, said that she and others paid $2,500 to an alleged lawyer to organize safe passage. Actually, she needed only to contact Mexican immigration authorities.
“They took our money,″ Ortiz said, adding that later the scammers “blocked us from WhatsApp.”
She said she did not report the scam out of fear of being imprisoned and deported.
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