Erika Hernandez's family was almost there.
They'd submitted the necessary paperwork to begin the road to citizenship for her husband and stepfather and were well on their way through the process.
In fact, the men were about to return to Mexico -- a penalty they had to face for being in the U.S. illegally -- so they could make a legal entrance after serving a typical penalty of a few months. It was May 2011.
That's when they learned of Eva Rodriguez, recommended by a family friend, who held herself out as someone who could navigate the system and make it easier.
Roughly $6,000 later, their bid for citizenship had all but been dashed, as they learned that Rodriguez wasn't who she said she was.
"Now, we have to start all over," Hernandez said of the arduous process of becoming an American citizen.
It's a crime that many illegal residents wouldn't normally report, either for fear of deportation or retribution. In fact, most in this increasingly vulnerable population could easily become or already are ongoing targets of crime.
Weld District Attorney Ken Buck today will announce his new program -- Preventing and Reporting Crimes Against Immigrants -- to bring justice back to these victims. It's a community program in which Buck will do local presentations to the varying immigrant communities from Burma, Mexico, Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda.
"The program is designed to make the community safer by encouraging immigrants to report crime, and that is the whole idea," Buck said. "It's all about really encouraging folks to overcome their fear of law enforcement and report crime to us so we can arrest criminals."
The program, which consists mostly of education and prevention efforts aimed at the immigrant community, represents somewhat of a departure from the norm in a community where institutional memory is strong. Many residents around here still remember Operation Numbers Game, when Buck and Weld County Sheriff John Cooke signed off on a 2008 raid of a local tax preparer looking for illegal immigrants committing the crime of criminal impersonation or identity theft using fake or stolen Social Security numbers to work. The operation resulted in more than 1,300 arrest warrants, about 100 arrests, and several people deported prior to the courts putting a stop to the entire operation months later, stating it was unconstitutional. The Colorado Supreme Court agreed a year later.
A few years back, when the UVisa program got started to grant temporary citizenship to immigrants who were victims of crime, Buck came out against them, he said, only because he felt the system was being taken advantage of, in that immigrants who'd been victims of crimes a decade earlier, were applying for them.
"I didn't support UVisas for cases that were closed and aren't active," Buck said. Since 2007, Buck has signed off on 24 UVisas in Weld County.
Buck said the new program in no way represents a change in philosophy for him. He continues to want to punish criminals and protect victims of crime.
"I will continue to enforce the law when it comes to criminal impersonation and other issues," Buck said. "They have to understand. That's my role.
"In terms of taking out a predator in their community, that's also my role," Buck said, adding that he doesn't do background checks on victims of crime before moving forward.
He said the new program will not need any additional funding; it's more about getting the word out to the various immigrant communities who make Greeley their home. That includes those from Mexico here legally, to those political assylees from Africa, who tend to have little trust in law enforcement.
"There are a lot of people in the Latino community who are here legally, they have a green card, but they are still afraid to report crime," Buck said. "They need to understand that police will do what they can to protect them."
The program isn't solely targeted on fraud claims; immigrants also are at risk for domestic violence crimes or burglaries.
"We had a domestic violence case in the Somali community and a group came to us and said, 'We'll take care of this within our community,'" Buck said. "That's not going to work. Some of these people don't understand our laws, and what our procedures are, and we need to help them understand."
As for Rodriguez, Buck said he couldn't comment on pending investigations.
The Hernandez family had to learn the hard way, trusting someone who told them to stop what they were doing with immigration and do things her way. For half upfront and half later, she would take care of it all, and the men wouldn't have to return to Mexico to serve out a penalty to return legally. She eventually became a family friend, attending Hernandez family functions. Checks to immigration for standard fees, didn't make it to immigration.
When the Hernandez family learned they had been conned, they confronted her; she ripped their documents and she blamed U.S. Immigration officials. Then she stopped returning calls. Rodriguez has already been ordered by the Colorado Supreme Court three times in the past year to stop the unauthorized practice of law.
But for the Hernandez family, the problem is tenfold. Her family has a tax preparation service, and recommended Rodriguez to several clients.
"We referred all of our clients to her," Hernandez said. "Most are from Mexico or El Salvador. We were calling them, saying don't pay her any more money, it's a scam."
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