By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
Patricia Cabrera came to the Fifth Street Towers in search of immigration papers. Cabrera had been listening to La Invasora radio when she heard an advertisement that seized her attention.
"If you don't have legal status, our legal department can help you get a work permit," the ad promised.
Cabrera, a squat 35-year-old woman with thin eyebrows and layers of makeup that can't cover the years of wear on her face, has been living illegally in the United States since 2000, when she left Ecuador to find a job that would pay more than $5 a day.
She dialed the number from the ad and spoke with Chris LaRiche, a local businessman who said that he helped immigrants find work and attain legal status. LaRiche invited Cabrera to his office so they could review her situation.
The Fifth Street Towers impressed Cabrera. With their gilded escalators and gorgeous skyway, the downtown skyscrapers were a far cry from the dingy shops in the barrio.
Cabrera was less sure what to make of LaRiche, a short, baby-faced man in his late thirties who wore a dark dress shirt and yellow construction boots. He claimed to be "European" with an Argentinean grandparent.
Dozens of other immigrants huddled in LaRiche's office that day. He would bring them into his quarters in small groups for consultations. When Cabrera walked into his office, LaRiche explained how he could help her family get papers.
"He said that he had a contact with immigration, 'Mike,'" Cabrera remembers.
If the Cabreras wanted LaRiche's help, they'd have to make an appointment next week and bring $500 each to initiate the process—a fee he said was a relative bargain.
"If you get an attorney, they will charge you $10,000," LaRiche said.
Patricia returned the next week with her husband, Mario, a nephew, Geronimo, and plenty of questions. LaRiche pulled out a binder bursting with documents—"cases," he said, that he'd successfully processed for illegal immigrants.
"I fixed these guys," LaRiche said, indicating one stack of papers. Then, pointing to another stack, he added, "These guys I couldn't help because they gave me fake papers."
LaRiche courted the Cabreras with piles of documents, flashing government websites to give them a glimpse at the application process and teasing them with copies of what he said were work permits. He was a persistent suitor.
"I'm not lying to you," LaRiche said, massaging their concerns. "If I were lying to you, I wouldn't be here. The police would've come here for me a long time ago."
In the end, the Cabreras trusted LaRiche, paying him $1,350 each, totaling $4,050, for the promise of work permits for the family.
"If you don't get papers, I'll return the money," LaRiche guaranteed.
The Cabreras waited patiently, expecting to receive their documents in the mail on a Tuesday. They thought everything was going fine until that Tuesday came and went without the paperwork arriving. When another week passed without word from immigration, the Cabreras became nervous and called LaRiche, who assured them the permits were in the mail.
Worried, Patricia went to Pillsbury House, a south Minneapolis nonprofit. She was directed to a local immigration attorney, David Wilson, who had already heard of LaRiche.
When LaRiche heard that the Cabreras had spoken to an attorney about him, he was furious.
LaRiche warned: "I'll send your husband to ICE and you'll never get papers!"
LARICHE IS PART OF a burgeoning criminal enterprise: immigration scams. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington filed a petition with the Federal Trade Commission in 2009 documenting a "widespread" and "increasing" trend of scams targeting immigrants.
"Until we filed the petition for Catholic Charities, there was no government agency that was trying to address this problem," says David Zetoony, the attorney representing the organization. "Nobody was trying to quantify this as a problem or count the people who had been victimized and realized it. Most of these people were simply falling through the cracks."
The Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and the FTC launched a national campaign last June to crack down on immigration scams. Since the program began, the federal government has received 1,200 formal complaints of immigration scams, says Tom Carter, national coordinator of the government's initiative. But the crime often goes underreported due to language barriers and immigrants' fear of police.
"For the most part, we believe consumers that are victims of this are trying to do the right thing," explains Carter. "They're trying to file for some benefit they think they're qualified for."
Even with the feds paying attention to the issue, the problem is still "pervasive" across the country and in Minnesota, according to Michele Garnett McKenzie, the director of advocacy at the Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis.
"We have people coming in who have been victims of this sort of behavior on a fairly regular basis," McKenzie said.
Local immigration attorneys say notarios—Spanish for a type of attorney that does not exist in the United States—can damage an immigrant's case to remain in the country. Government lawyers take false, incomplete, or misleading information in immigration applications very seriously.