SAN JOSE, Calif. - A group of community leaders and activists, organized as the Sacred Heart Immigration Committee, met with newly elected County Supervisor Cindy Chavez to urge the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to move aggressively against immigration scams targeting undocumented immigrants.
Immigration fraud is a nationwide problem. Unscrupulous individuals, including some attorneys, but many merely posing as attorneys, promise immigrants assistance in gaining green cards, drivers' licenses, and even citizenship - for fees ranging up to thousands of dollars. When they fail to deliver on their promises, their victims often fear to go to the police or district attorney for fear of being deported.
Some of these scam artists take advantage of the similarity in sound between the English term "notary" and the Spanish word "notario." In the U.S. a notary is empowered only to witness signatures and administer oaths, while in most Spanish-speaking countries a notario has some legal training and credentials. Some notaries play on this mistranslation, encouraging immigrants to believe they have legal authority to provide what they promise.
Two committee members gave heart-rending testimony about the tragedies that can result. A community leader named Graciela told how a person working for the state Department of Motor Vehicles promised her and her family drivers' licenses for two thousand dollars each. The family paid out eight thousand dollars, and of course never got the licenses. Another committee member, Soledad, told of a neighbor who had lived in the US from the age of 12 or 13 who paid $5000 to a notary claiming he could get him a Social Security number and a green card. Relying on this fraudster's "assistance" and assurances, the neighbor wound up being deported back to Tijuana, leaving a wife and two young children to fend for themselves.
The committee called on Chavez to push to County to commit more resources to combating and prosecuting fraud of this sort and to ensure that all community residents know, in their own language, of the resources available to them.
Chavez, the former Executive Director of the South Bay Labor Council, not only expressed her own sympathy for the committee's concerns but also assured them that all of the County Supervisors, including the lone Republican, were concerned for the well being of all immigrants, documented or undocumented. She spoke of growing up in a union household, where her father, a union carpenter from New Mexico, so often gave lodging to newly arrived workers that she called her house "the Chavez Hotel." "I leaned from my family that we are all one," she said.
Chavez went on to discuss a number of initiatives she and the Board are taking to address the issue. Pointing out that around 2,500 county employees are due to retire in the next two years, she pledged to ensure that the County seeks new hires who know the languages and cultures of the varied residents of the area. She pointed to an initiative by District Attorney Jeff Rosen to set up "community prosecutors" who would focus on the crimes and issues seen as most urgent by the community, and urged the committee to press these officials to respond to their concerns. She also pointed out that the County had a firm policy ensuring that anyone reporting fraud would not be exposed to danger because of his or her immigration status. She also is working to create a website where people can check the legal credentials and experience with immigration cases of anyone claiming to offer legal help to immigrants.
Funding the agencies that serve immigrants on this and other issues, she admitted, is a challenge, because County funds are needed by a host of human needs, including hospitals and children's health insurance. She urged the committee to meet with other Board members or their staffs to impress on them the urgency of this problem, and felt confident that, when so confronted, the Board would respond.
In fact, the committee had already met with another progressive pro-labor County Supervisor, Dave Cortese, now running for mayor of San Jose.
The good rapport and working relations that this committee has with the Board of Supervisors and other elected officials is the fruit of some five years of work by Sacred Heart Community Services, originally formed to provide direct aid in food and clothing to the indigent (as it still does), but which has turned itself into a major center for grassroots organizing. One committee member put the spirit of Sacred Heart's work on this and other issues very clearly: "Hay mucho poder unidos"-"there's lots of power when we're united."