Immigration fraud has expanded across the country, resulting in prosecution of the defrauders and deportation of immigrants caught in the middle. Scores of immigrants were deported from Utah last year and, here in Hawaii as many as 50 clients of a Vietnam immigrant who falsified their immigration papers could face a similar destiny. Judges should be flexible in deciding who may remain in America and who must go – to distinguish between victim and scofflaw – but with strict penalties for the instigators.
Immigrants often have orchestrated such frauds, and that was the case in Hawaii, where licensed Honolulu notary Henry Hung Nguyen, a legal U.S. resident from Vietnam, helped dozens of his countrymen immigrate to the islands over more than a decade. He pleaded guilty in 2008 to false notary certification, admitting that he listed people as "joint sponsors" of immigrants without their permission.
In Salt Lake City, Leticia Avila, who posed as an attorney before Latin American immigrants, failed to appear at trial last week and is believed to have returned to her native Ecuador. Her duped clients, who had trusted Avila through her membership in the Mormon Church, were deported last year.
Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told the Salt Lake Tribune and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that fighting fraud is a "priority." Such frauds "not only threaten the integrity of the nation’s legal immigration system, they also potentially rob deserving immigrants of benefits they rightly deserve," she said.
However, the agency and an immigration judge should recognize the difference between frauds that victimize immigrants and those in which immigrants appear to have knowingly taken part. For example, the owner of a South Florida language school pleaded guilty this month to helping illegally obtain student visas for foreign nationals who never came to class. The investigation led to the arrest of 113 student visa holders who now properly face deportation.
In Hawaii and Utah, many, if not most, of the deportable immigrants appear to have been hoodwinked from the start. Most of Nguyen’s clients are rural Vietnamese who speak little, if any, English and have little education and few financial resources, according to federal officials and private attorneys.
Kice said the Hawaii cases are being pursued administratively, not as criminal cases, because ICE has no evidence of illegal activity by the immigrants who had been granted temporary work permits.
Law enforcement officials say immigration fraud is difficult to uncover and prosecute because many victims are in the U.S. illegally and are hesitant to seek help from authorities for fear of deportation. That being the case, special considerations should be given to immigrants who report the wrongdoing to authorities or cooperate with investigators.
The priority given by ICE to fraud is proper, but neglecting the needs of those alerting authorities to the illegal activity could discourage reporting of such fraud in future cases. That appears to have occurred in Utah, where some of Avila’s former clients say they expected to be allowed to stay in the United States in exchange for their testimony.
The government should not make the same mistake in Hawaii.