SALT LAKE CITY — Jose Gonzalez went to great lengths to defraud some 20 people who sought his help to obtain legal immigration status.
Gonzalez told people unauthorized to live in the United States that he could move their immigration cases through the process more quickly — for a fee.
To lend credibility to his story, Gonzalez passed himself off as a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer for more than a year by dressing the part, carrying a fake badge and occasionally asking clients to drop him off at the ICE office in Murray to give the impression he worked there.
Over a year and half, Gonzalez defrauded his victims of $87,000 and their property. Through the efforts of the Utah Attorney General's Office and the U.S. Attorney's Office, Gonzalez was charged with 36 federal counts of wire fraud, inducing illegal aliens to live in the United States unlawfully, aiding and abetting, and impersonating a federal officer.
In November, he was sentenced to 41 months in prison under a plea agreement. Once he completes his sentence, he will be deported.
One of his victims, Miguel Angel Garcia, was defrauded of $8,000. Garcia sought Gonzalez's help after a mutual acquaintance told him "he's a really good guy. That's what got me involved," he said in an interview Wednesday.
Garcia said many of the things Gonzalez promised seemed too good to be true.
"Now you just don't want to trust anybody," he said.
Law enforcement and immigration officials say Gonzalez's case is a textbook example of the profound vulnerability of many people who seek help with immigration issues. When people are victims of unscrupulous advisers, they are afraid to seek help.
"This is a problem in Utah. It's happening here, and it's happening nationwide," said Jeanne Kent, field office director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
On Wednesday, federal officials launched an education campaign intended to help people make informed choices in seeking legal advice and representation on immigration matters and to crack down on the unlicensed practice of law.
The Wrong Help Can Hurt campaign intends to help people identify common immigration scams and to direct people to licensed attorneys or non-attorney representatives accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals. Both are authorized to provide legal services and represent clients in court, said U.S. Attorney for Utah David Barlow.
Kent said scammers use a number of tools to defraud people seeking assistance with immigration matters.
"They're so clever. They make websites that look very much like ours," she said.
Some scammers also attempt to sell immigration forms to clients, forms the agency provides for free. While some forms require a filing fee, there is no charge for the documents. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will even mail them to people who request them, Kent said.
Federal authorities have become aware of a scam in California in which the outgoing caller ID appears to be from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Kent said. Callers tell applicants there are problems with their immigration documents, such as they have not paid all filing fees, and they could be deported unless they immediately wire money to the government.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services does not telephone applicants or threaten deportation of people attempting to seek legal status, Kent said. The agency also does not conduct business in people's homes or elsewhere in the community.
"We never ask for money over the phone. We never ask for a person's identity over the phone," she said.
But many immigrants seeking legal status are vulnerable to scammers because they are reluctant to notify authorities for fear they will be deported.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Huber said prosecutors want to catch predators, not ensnare people who have already been victimized.
"What motivates a prosecutor is when you have a vulnerable community with predators amongst them taking advantage of them," Huber said.
Community activist Tony Yapias said Gonzalez's victims initially contacted him. Yapias reached out to the Utah Attorney General's SECURE Strike Force but wanted assurances that the people Gonzalez had taken advantage of would not be subject to deportation actions. The strike force set up sting and arrested Gonzalez. His case was prosecuted by federal authorities.
All 20 victims were in court the day Gonzalez was sentenced. Barlow said the crime victims were offered "U visas" — which is "nonimmigrant status for victims of crimes who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse and are willing to assist law enforcement and government officials in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity," according to the USCIS website — for their help in convicting Gonzalez.
Barlow said Wednesday's meeting was a jumping off point for a larger community effort to help inform people about available licensed or authorized legal assistance. Federal and state officials plan to work with community organizations that serve immigrants to warn them of fraudulent practices and direct them to legitimate resources and law enforcement agencies that will assist them if they have been defrauded.