Monthly Archives

December 2018

Crimes against Immigrants

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Immigration is always a hot topic in the U.S., especially right before an election. Instead of debating the merits of our current immigration policies, this article will focus on some of the crimes that disproportionately affect immigrant populations, particularly in New York.

It can be difficult to determine how often crimes occur because undocumented immigrants are often afraid of reporting when they have been victimized. In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission received approximately 1,100 complaints from immigrants nationwide.

In Spanish-speaking communities, a notario is someone who can offer legal services. In the U.S. notary publics are not the same thing, and many times, people who are notary public pass themselves off as legal advisors, charging excessive fees without ever providing any legal assistance. In New York, notaries are licensed only to certify identities and signatures, and will not necessarily also be attorneys.

Another common scam is the 10-year visa. The Manhattan DA recently indicted a suspended immigration attorney after he offered a ’10-year green card’ service without fully explaining the process, which often involves deportation. Frequently, attorneys will tell immigrants who have been present in the US for ten years,  have paid taxes, no criminal record, and have children who were born here,  they could receive a work permit. In fact, this  process usually involves an application for asylum.  Qualifying for asylum is a very high standard. If the immigrant fails to demonstrate ‘exceptional and extremely unusual hardship,’  then he or she could be deported. Thanks to language barriers and fear, most immigrants do not realize that they have applied for asylum until they receive notice for their asylum hearing.

Sometimes, individuals will pose as immigration officials and threaten them with deportation. They will demand personal information, like passport numbers, credit cards, and social security numbers. They then use this information to steal their identities or liquidate their bank accounts. If the individual is here illegally, then they might be threatened with being reported to the authorities in exchange for a bribe or some other services they would not otherwise want to have. Immigrants are often duped into paying significant fees for what they believe to be legitimate paperwork or applications. Scammers have sold fake visas and plane tickets to immigrants as well.

Immigrants often face difficulties with work, particularly if they are undocumented.  Sometimes, companies will hire immigrants and refuse to pay them, or pay them far below the minimum wage. They rely on the fact that immigrants will probably not report this to the relevant authorities. Other times, they are targeted for fake investment opportunities or pyramid schemes, or with a promise to expedite their immigration applications for a fee.

At the time of Trump’s election in 2016, then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman made it a priority for immigrants to use the state’s resources to report crimes. However, according to WNYC,  when asked if the New York state agencies had received more complaints in 2017  than in 2016, the answer was a consistent ‘no.’ Instead, their numbers decreased.  Most agencies attribute this decline to the hostile environment immigrants currently face under the present administration. The D.A. has assured the public that his office is a safe environment for immigrants who believe they have been defrauded to report their situations.

California Wildfires

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The California wildfires have been a horrific reminder that life is short, and has compounded the concerns that climate change present to a modern society. Hundreds remain missing in what has been the deadliest wildfire in U.S. history – but what, or who caused them is still under investigation. Authorities in California have been forced to change how they deal with people who cause fires – whether accidentally, or on purpose.

In 2004, the Bear fire burned 11,000 acres in California. A man named William Rupp was arrested and convicted of arson, spending two years in state prison. It is somewhat unusual for someone to be convicted of arson for setting a wildfire – often because the initial spark is unintentional. In Mr. Rupp’s case, he was accused of ignoring the serious fire hazard when he rode his riding lawn mower and cut his grass on a dry day where temperatures reached 106 degrees. The mower blade hit a rock and sparked a fire. He was ordered to pay $2.9 million to the victims, although he has no way to pay. In another case, a civil lawsuit was filed against a Saudi businessman after a poorly maintained electrical junction on his property caused the 2015 Mountain fire, which burned over 27,500 acres. Prosecutors are able to secure convictions under these cases if they can show that someone willfully and maliciously or recklessly set fire to something.

It is also incredibly difficult to find the person ultimately responsible for starting to blaze. Few arsonists have been convicted of wildfire arson. Raymond Lee Oyler was the first, currently sitting on death row in California. Over five months, he played a well-orchestrated game of cat and mouse with various California fire departments, setting systematic fires and watching the devastation play out through his binoculars.

In California, a conviction for arson under California Penal Code 451(c) is a felony which carries state imprisonment for between two to six years. However, if someone is charged and convicted of arson that causes great bodily injury, that is a felony punishable by a prison term for five to nine years. Arson which causes an inhabited property to burn is punishable by state prison for three to eight years. California also has a felony murder rule, which means that if an individual carries out felony arson, but then also kills someone in the process, they could face murder charges and spend life in prison if convicted.

Some of the most common defenses to arson charges are usually that the fire was an accident, or that the defendant is a victim of mistaken identification. Sometimes, defense attorneys will try to demonstrate that the fire was not the result of arson, or poke holes in the state’s case to show that the evidence against the defendant is insufficient to carry a conviction. Ultimately, it is up to the prosecutor to determine whether or not an arson charge will get filed. In the past, these charges and convictions for wildfire crimes were rare. In light of the consistent and terrible fires of 2018, it seems that the attitude might change.