Migrants seeking US sponsors find questionable offers online

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FILE - A woman from Cuba waits with other migrants to be processed to seek asylum after crossing the border into the United States, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, near Yuma, Ariz. An underground market has emerged for migrants seeking U.S. sponsors since the Biden administration announced last month that it would accept a limited number of people from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti. Applicants for the humanitarian parole program need someone in the U.S. to promise to provide financial support for at least two years. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Pedro Yudel Bruzon was looking for someone in the U.S. to support his effort to seek asylum when he landed on a Facebook page filled with posts demanding up to $10,000 for a financial sponsor.

It's part of an underground market that's emerged since the Biden administration announced it would accept 30,000 immigrants each month arriving by air from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti. Applicants for the humanitarian parole program need someone in the U.S., often a friend or relative, to promise to provide financial support for at least two years.

Bruzon, who lives in Cuba, doesn't know anyone who can do that, so he searched online. But he also doesn't have the money to pay for a sponsor and isn't sure the offers — or those making them — are real. He worries about being exploited or falling prey to a scam.

“They call it humanitarian parole, but it has nothing to do with being humanitarian,” said Bruzon, who said he struggles to feed himself and his mother with what he makes as a 33-year-old Havana security guard. “Everyone wants money, even people in the same family.”

It’s unclear how many people in the United States may have charged migrants to sponsor them, but Facebook groups with names like “Sponsors U.S.” carry dozens of posts offering and seeking financial supporters.

Several immigration attorneys said they could find no specific law prohibiting people from charging money to sponsor beneficiaries.

“As long as everything is accurate on the form and there are no fraudulent statements it may be legal,” said lawyer Taylor Levy, who long worked along the border around El Paso, Texas. “But what worries me are the risks in terms of being trafficked and exploited. If lying is involved, it could be fraud.”

Also, she noted, it “seems counterintuitive” to pay someone to promise to provide financial support.

Attorney Leon Fresco, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, said charging to be a sponsor is a “gray area” and the U.S. should send a forceful message against the practice.

Kennji Kizuka, an attorney and director of asylum policy for the International Rescue Committee, which resettles newcomers in the United States, said this type of thing happens with every new U.S. program benefitting migrants.

“It looks like some are just going to take people’s money and the people are going to get nothing in return,” Kizuka said.

Levy said such exploitation surrounding a similar U.S. program for Ukrainians prompted the government to publish an online guide about how to spot and protect against human-trafficking schemes.

One common scheme with immigration programs is known as notario fraud and involves people who call themselves “notarios públicos” charging large sums. In Latin America, the term refers to attorneys with special credentials, leading lead migrants to believe they are lawyers who can provide legal advice. In the U.S., notaries public are merely empowered to witness the signing of legal documents and issue oaths.

In another scheme, someone poses as a U.S. official asking for money. The U.S. government notes: “We do not accept Western Union, MoneyGram, PayPal, or gift cards as payment for immigration fees.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services warns about potential scams with the humanitarian parole program for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans that was rolled out last month and notes online that the program is free.

“Fulfilling our humanitarian mission while upholding the integrity of the immigration system is a top priority for USCIS,” the agency said in response to questions about the potential for exploitation. It says the agency “carefully vets every prospective supporter through a series of fraud- and security-based screening measures.”

“Additionally, USCIS thoroughly reviews each reported case of fraud or misconduct and may refer those cases to federal law enforcement for additional investigation,” the statement said.

The agency did not address whether any application has been rejected because of concerns that potential sponsors might be requesting money.

The Department of Homeland Security says 1,700 humanitarian parole applications were accepted as of Jan. 25 from Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans, plus an undisclosed number of Venezuelans. A Texas-led lawsuit seeks to stop the program, which could allow 360,000 people a year to enter the U.S. legally.

One Facebook post advertising paid sponsorships led to a person who identified himself as an American citizen living in Pensacola, Florida. Told he was communicating with a journalist, the person refused to talk on the phone and would only text.

The person told The Associated Press he had sponsored a Cuban uncle and aunt for $10,000 each. He refused to provide contact information for those relatives, then stopped responding to questions.

Another would-be sponsor said via Facebook messenger that they charge $2,000 per person, which includes a sponsorship fee, document processing and an airline ticket. Requests for more information were answered with a phone number from the Dominican Republic that rang unanswered.

A man who posted seeking a sponsor told the AP that he was disturbed by some offers.

“It’s very easy to trick a desperate person and there are an abundance of them here,” the man, who identified himself as Pedro Manuel Carmenate, of Havana, said. “You just have to tell the people what they want to hear.”

Of course, not all sponsors charge a fee. A new initiative called Welcome.US aims to match Americans to migrants without supporters. Also, nonprofit organizations are trying to spread accurate information about the program.

Sarah Ivory, executive director of the nonprofit USAHello that provides online information in multiple languages, said the proliferation of offers for paid sponsorship is “deeply troubling and frustratingly predictable,” reflected in hundreds of queries to the group.

“Many report that they barely have the money to feed themselves, much less pay to get a passport or arrange a sponsor,” Ivory said.

Such desperation is reflected on social media.

“I’m looking for a sponsor for two people please, my husband is in a wheelchair,” reads a post from someone who says she lives in Havana. “I will give my house with everything inside and I’ll pay $4,000 for each” person sponsored.