As Donald Trump's administration continues its harsh anti-immigrant crackdown across the United States, those most at risk of being targeted by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents are facing an additional threat—not from government agents, but from criminals preying on the fear immigrants are feeling.
New York City councilman Jimmy Van Bramer described one such incident that took place in his Queens district on Monday, in which a group of people posing as ICE officers took $250 from an undocumented immigrant who they had threatened with deportation.
"Basically what we have here are scammers," Van Bramer explained during a recent news conference. "Trying to make a quick buck, based off the fact some are terrified."
In response to an uptick in reports of these sort of crimes, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued an urgent fraud alert to immigrant communities on Tuesday.
"It is unconscionable for scam artists to prey on heightened fear in our immigrant communities by pretending to be ICE officers and demanding that families pay up in order to avoid deportation,” Schneiderman said. “I urge communities to protect themselves by learning about these potential scams – and contacting my office if they suspect fraud. We will continue to use all of the tools at our disposal and bring to justice those who commit fraud against our immigrant communities.”
Scams targeting immigrants are, unfortunately, not limited to New York, nor are they anything new.
In 2014, two Boston-area men were indicted in federal court for impersonating ICE agents as part of an effort to extort thousands of dollars from undocumented immigrants. According to the Department of Justice, the men "told persons who were present in the United States illegally that they could fix their immigration problems, remove any impediments including evidence of prior immigration arrests, and get them lawful permanent resident status."
And in 2015, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency itself warned of similar scams, in which "imposters have contacted individual non-citizens claiming that there are issues with their immigration cases and requesting money be sent in to rectify the situation."
More recently, rumors of renewed scams targeting immigrants sparked a panic among Boston's Latinx community in early February, forcing police to deny allegations that fake ICE agents were conducting "checks" on local metro trains. And in December of 2016, Alejandro Gurany of Texas was indicted for bilking thousands of dollars out of undocumented immigrants by impersonating an ICE agent and promising to aid in their efforts to gain legal status in the U.S.
Underlying these cases is the seemingly impossible situation many undocumented immigrants find themselves in. One one side, there is ICE, which has swept up hundreds of people—including, in at least one instance, a man who was legally allowed in the U.S. under the DACA program—over the past week. On the other side is local law enforcement. In the current climate, it's not hard to see why people would be fearful of turning to the police—especially if they don't live in sanctuary cities, which limit police involvement in federal enforcement.
The situation is made all the more immediate by Donald Trump's ongoing targeting of immigrant communities. Through both his rhetoric and by ratcheting up federal actions against those immigrants living in the United States, the president has created an atmosphere in which scammers feel emboldened to act, while their targets feel all the more vulnerable.