Hilda Alegria and Mario Smith can't help but dream of winning the lottery.
It's not a flashy new car, expensive home or exotic vacation they envision, but something much more valuable--the chance to work legally in the United States.
Alegria and Smith are among thousands of undocumented immigrants who are banking they'll hit the jackpot and be granted permanent resident status in the latest round of the visa lottery, which ended Thursday.
"This is a chance to finally move ahead with my life," said Smith, a photographer who left Guatemala in 1985. "With all this anti-immigrant talk, it could well be the last chance. And life just seems to be getting harder and more dangerous if you don't have papers."
However, the popularity of the visa lottery--a blind drawing for green cards conducted by the State Department--has brought with it unscrupulous con artists who charge exorbitant rates to help immigrants fill out the applications, often with the false promise that the fees bring a guarantee of a visa.
"This lottery has really captured the imagination of people who are chasing 55,000 visas, but because of the interest in the lottery it has attracted some people who do things like scams, and it's really unfortunate," said Gary Sheaffer, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.
Wary of scams in which immigrants are unnecessarily, and often illegally, charged for filling out the lottery applications, Alegria and Smith turned to the Central American Resource Center in Pico-Union for help two days before the filing deadline.
"There are a lot of scams out there. . . . I know that because I worked at an office where they would charge people up to $800 to fill out forms, so I knew to be careful," Smith said.
It is difficult to gauge the number of victims who fall prey to scams promising quick solutions to immigration problems, but it is a growing problem, according to public officials and community groups.
"In this office, the biggest caseload we have to deal with is immigration cases that range anywhere from citizenship to (those) where people end up having problems because of some agency that charged them money and didn't help them," said Yolanda Chavez, district chief of staff for Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles). The office is currently handling 60 cases involving immigration applications, many of which have been incorrectly filed.
The stories are similar at CARECEN, where frustrated clients arrive looking for help after losing hundreds of dollars to notary public and storefront businesses, said Elvin Ortiz, a paralegal with the group's legal department. The problem is not limited to the lottery but also to political asylum cases.
"Most of the cases are those involving political asylum and people who have been charged $500 for doing an application that is done incorrectly," Ortiz said. "What happens is there is no official declaration and in some cases that can result in deportation."
Most of those cases involve people who turn over hundreds of dollars and crucial documents such as birth certificates to storefront agencies in exchange for the promise of resolving residency problems, and the losses can devastating.
In a recent case, the district attorney's office prosecuted a Los Angeles woman accused of bilking 16 people out of nearly $40,000 last December, said Greg Parham, the deputy district attorney in charge of the case.
The woman, Lo-li V. Gregor, who was later convicted of 43 felony counts including grand theft, preyed on newly arrived Chinese immigrants. She promised them "gold star cards," which victims purchased for up to $11,000 after being told the cards entitled them to legally work and live in the country, Parham said.
Many people who fall victim to such scams are reluctant to file complaints, fearing questions about their residency status, Chavez said.
Community groups such as One Stop Immigration and Education Center also fault the current debate over immigration as one reason a growing number of people, including legal residents, are flocking to storefront shops for help.
"There is a barrage of anti-immigrant sentiment and that is facilitating scams," said Juan Jose Gutierrez, executive director of One Stop. "Those plastic little green cards become a life ambition for some people. And if someone is telling you that you'll have to sacrifice a couple of thousands of dollars to do it, well, who wouldn't, because they are desperate."
Gutierrez and other immigrant rights activists offer the following advice to those looking to resolve their residency problems: Contact community-based groups that work with immigrants or an attorney who specializes in immigration law.