A New Kind of Comic Book Superhero? José Busca Legalizarse

Jose Busca Legalizarse

A page from the graphic novel ‘Jose Busca Legalizarse.’

As dryly bureaucratic as “arreglar papeles” — to arrange papers — may sound, for those without work permits, visas or green cards, it’s a phrase loaded with hope.

If your papers are “arranged” successfully, it means you can bring your family to the U.S., that you have a right to be here, and that you’re free to work, study and live your life without being afraid that uniformed officers will kick down your door and send you back to the country you left.

Unfortunately, this hope can sometimes be blinding and lead unsuspecting immigrants into a trap of immigration fraud. New York’s Attorney General’s has filed suit against a woman in Queens, ” for defrauding hundreds of immigrants out of more than $250,000.”  According to the AG’s website, their office is demanding documents from 80 more organizations and individuals purporting to offer immigration services.

Charging $5000–$10,000 per client, shady lawyers or “notarios” can run a lucrative business providing fake services to unsuspecting immigrants.  It’s not always clear if the man in a suit sitting at a desk in a storefront office can help, or will take your money and run.

To spread the word about how to identify and avoid becoming a victim of fraud New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), an organization based in Queens that serves recent immigrants, has launched a multifaceted outreach program to the Spanish-speaking community called ¡Avíspate y ponte pilas!  — Be aware and be ready. On May 24, NICE introduced, José Busca Legalizarse, (José Seeks Legal Status) a graphic novel illustrating the story of José, an undocumented immigrant who is on a quest to become a legal resident of the U.S.

Valeria Treves, Executive Director of NICE, explained at the graphic novel’s launch event at the Queens Museum of Art that immigration fraud is “a complicated subject. For something as emotional as bringing your family and becoming legal, a cold list of do’s and don’t is not enough.” Treves hopes that the graphic novel will hold the attention of immigrants.

At six pages long, the comic, drawn by artist and City Tech graphic design student Alfredo López, and based on experiences culled from NICE membership, takes readers through the arc of hope, disappointment, and realization that a defrauded immigrant often goes through. In the end, José loses the $7,000 he paid to the unscrupulous lawyer, and comes out of it with a list of advice for other undocumented immigrants hoping to find a path to legalization.

The advice includes: demanding a receipt, asking to see the person’s credentials and knowing that the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) doesn’t accept payment in cash, nor do they demand a single lump sum.

José goes on to warn the community about fraud. Another character, Luis, simply disappears.

Those who commit this type of fraud often capitalize on the rampant misunderstanding in the Latino community of the title “notario.” In Spanish, “notario” means lawyer, not “notary,” which is the certification many of these individuals actually have.  One tactic used by notarios is to apply to USCIS on the undocumented immigrants’ behalf for a change of status, asylum or a victim of human trafficking visa.  It’s fraud when the person making the application knows that the applicant is ineligible for any of these paths to legalization.

While the application is under review, the immigrant is granted a one-year work visa, and everything seems rosy. But as Treves puts it, they’ve also “outed themselves” as undocumented to the USCIS, and deportation proceedings ensue. While the novel never says explicitly what happened to Luis, this was the implied outcome.

NICE hopes that members of the Latino community will read the graphic novel, pass it around and spread the word. As the program implores: ¡Avíspate y ponte pilas! A little knowledge can cut off demand at the source.

Victims of immigration fraud in New York should contact the New York State Attorney General’s office.

A list from the USCIS for places to report immigration fraud practices in each state.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

AboutAurora Almendral
Aurora Almendral is a Philippine-born freelance writer based in New York City. As a Fulbright Scholar to Morocco and Spain, she researched and filmed a documentary on entrepreneurship and illegal immigration in Madrid. She previously worked as a research assistant at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and has written for Filipinas Magazine and New America Media.