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A Volunteer Army Helps Stop Ohio Immigrants From Falling For Scams

John and Linda Beaty stand in their front yard.
M.L. Schultze
John and Linda Beaty stand in their front yard.

You don’t need GPS to figure out which west Akron house belongs to John Beaty. “I’m a bumper sticker Christian,” he says. 

The 80-year-old retired Methodist minister and his wife, Linda, wear their sentiments on bumper stickers, wall art, window stickers and yard signs (“Love thy neighbor (no exceptions)” and “Hate has no home here”) in a half-dozen languages.

They’re also among the founders of the Akron Interfaith Immigration Advocates.  

“Whether you are Muslim, Jewish or Christian or Hindu or other religions, we all have a common bond of concern for human beings,” he says.

Immigrants are increasingly the targets of money-making scams, preying on their fears of deportation and immigration authorities. But a growing number of grassroots efforts like Beaty’s provide immigrants with the information and tools to avoid these scams.

“They Become Part Of Us”

In all, about 100 people volunteer with the Akron interfaith group. They make repeated trips these days to immigration courts and detention facilities as far away as Detroit.

Sometimes they deliver bond money; sometimes they bring individuals to their hearings; sometimes they bring whole families for what could end in a farewell.

Without the volunteers’ help, the immigrants would have to rely on private transportation. And that often means an opportunist with a junker who charges as much as $300 for the less than one hour trip to Cleveland for immigration proceedings.

One Tuscarawas County woman faced a cost of $1,300 to get to the Guatemalan embassy in Chicago to pick up documents.

But Linda Beaty says the interfaith advocates do more than save money for immigrant families. Their work also extends into immigration court.

"We find that the judge feels better when they know that there is a community built in for them, and we don’t drop our people,” Linda Beaty says. “They become part of us.” 

That includes Christmas parties, summer picnics, childbirth celebrations – as well as help with food, getting kids to school, and help with legal advice and medical care. Perhaps most importantly, John Beaty says, they connect immigrants to a network of friends and resources.

“There is a lot of manipulation of vulnerable immigrants,” he says. “But there is a lot of help for vulnerable immigrants by other immigrants.”

“If Something Sounds Weird, Just Stop”

There are other support groups throughout Northeast Ohio, including Cleveland Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services, the statewide Immigrant Worker Project based in Canton, the International Institute of Akron, and the University of Akron immigration clinic, which specializes in asylum cases.

Some have staff, all rely on volunteers, and many have taken on the task of helping immigrants recognize scams. The cons are so pervasive, they can literally walk in the door while immigrants are working on other issues.

One example is a young man who came into a Canton center to renew his work permit. As he was sitting there, a text-message popped up phishing for his Social Security number. His face tightened, then relaxed after he showed the text to the lawyer across the desk, who told him to ignore it.  

The most common scams include phony IRS warnings of arrest and deportation, bogus immigration paperwork, falsified tax forms, and exorbitant fees for things like standardized immigration forms and free vaccinations.

Hery Salamanca is a Church of God pastor in the Columbiana County town of Salem. He’s also the guy many of local Guatemalans call when they’re approached.

His advice is familiar in any language.

“If something sounds weird, just stop,” he says. “Don’t send money to anybody. Go to the Catholic Church or contact me, and we’ll take care of it.”

Because Salamanca is an interpreter for the Salem Police department and courts, he’s especially effective when the scams include threats of arrests.

But Salamanca says scammers are adept at ferreting out fresh fears. Some show a specialized understanding of the community he works with.

“I have families asking me to take them right away to send money,” Salamanca says. “I say, ‘O.K., I will help you, but why? Why we need to send money?’ (Scammers) sent them pictures of the Santa Muerte saying if you don’t send the money to me right now, we’re going to do witchcraft on you.”

Whether it’s Salamanca in Salem, or John and Linda Beaty in Akron, or hundreds of other volunteers, their goal is to replace fear with faith that life will get better and that the community around them cares for its immigrants.

This is the second of a two-part series on scammers targeting Ohio immigrants. Read part one here.

Visit Save Immigrant Families USA for free documents, information on scams, know-your-rights clinics, updates on laws and other information for immigrant families in Ohio. You can also find more information on how to fight scams by visiting the Federal Trade Commission’s website.