Some 30 people denounced a counseling agency that offered them work visas for the United States for $20,000.
The offer on social networks was tempting: “Work in the United States legally.”
This is how Marco, a native of the Azuay canton of Sígsig, remembers it, who in mid-2021 contacted a Cuenca company dedicated to processing visas to legally travel to the United States.
“We spoke with the advisers, and they told us that we could obtain a renewable three-year work visa,” says the man. He claims that he paid $500 just to reserve a spot for his wife.
To formally apply, they had to pay $20,000—$15,000 at the beginning of the process and $5,000 upon receiving the visa.
“They told us that there was an opportunity to go work in [fish processing]. The pay was going to be $110 an hour because it was a place that not many people had access to,” he explained. So, part of the service he hired from the agency was a two-month course to learn how to process fish.
At that time, the couple paid the advance of $15,000 and when it was time to withdraw the supposed visa there was a problem, and the trip did not take place. From then on, they decided not to pay more money because they suspected that something was wrong.
He and 30 other people from different cantons of Azuay, El Oro and Guayas, say that they were scammed by this agency, and they filed a complaint with the Azuay Prosecutor’s Office. The case is under preliminary investigation, so the authorities are not currently providing details about it.
The company’s representative, Irma Ch., responded to the accusations in a broadcast on Facebook Live. She said that the procedures carried out in her business are legal and that the complaints are “malicious rumors to destroy the prestige of her company.”
Although in the same transmission she admitted that four employees “were fired for being bad elements.” According to her, “they hindered procedures, taking documents or selling services for personal use,” for which she initiated legal action against them.
US created a rush for visas
In November 2021, the United States Government released 66,000 temporary visas in call for workers from 83 countries. In Latin America that included Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, the Dominican Republic and Uruguay.
US Immigration Law establishes that the maximum number of these visas that are granted per fiscal year is 66,000. The first 33,000 are delivered in the first half of the fiscal year (October 1 – March 31) and the rest between April and September, plus unused quotas from the first half of the year.
Ecuadorians are eligible for visas such as the H2A, which allows US employers to bring in foreign nationals to work in agriculture. Another is the H2B visa, for non-agricultural labor, explains lawyer Pablo Torres.
For this reason, travel agencies and legal clinics promote their services for these procedures, but places are limited. Torres emphasizes that “a non-immigrant visa cannot be guaranteed to any person,” even with the support of these calls, as this is established by the US Immigration Law.
Still, interest in this possibility is growing in provinces with a migratory vocation such as Azuay and Cañar, where the demand for passports has skyrocketed. Since March, the Civil Registry extended its opening hours to try to meet this demand.
In Cuenca, shifts are filled until July, and in Azogues until June.
But not all offers are legal, and some even serve as fronts for migrant smuggling. This was explained by Maribel Trujillo, a lawyer and expert in migration issues, who explained how these companies operate.
First, it is necessary to differentiate between the offices that advise people seeking to obtain a visa, usually managed by expert immigration lawyers, and the travel agencies, which must offer tour packages. Though there are travel agencies that ‘camouflage’ themselves under the tourist offer to include advice services for obtaining a visa, explained Trujillo. In Cuenca, many companies work that way.
“They promote themselves on social networks as a company that guarantees the trip and offer complete packages. They facilitate job hiring, they place a lot of emphasis on the job security they offer,” explained the lawyer.
“There are others that have been directly used by migrant smuggling mafias,” says William Murillo, director of the organization 1-800 Migrante. Especially when Ecuadorians could enter Mexico without a visa.
“They made a lot of money, taking advantage of people’s desperation to leave the country,” he recalled. One of the cases that revealed this practice was discovered in July 2021, when an operation against human trafficking was carried out in 48 countries.
“Ecuadorian Police arrested eight suspects who were taking migrants to the United States through an apparently legitimate travel agency, used as a cover to book plane tickets for flights with a stopover in Mexico,” according to information published by Interpol.
Between January and April 2022, the Association of Travel Agencies, Operators and Tourism Wholesalers of Azuay has sent the Ministry of Tourism 22 alerts from agencies that allegedly act illegally.
After complying with the scheduled inspections and controls related to those alerts, Zone 6 prosecutors initiated one sanctioning process in Azuay, and three in Cañar, against agencies in which irregularities were detected.
Illegal migration still a risk some will take
The regional coordinator of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility, Íngrid Ordóñez, admits that “there is no doubt that there is a high interest in reaching the United States.”
She also explained that illegal migration has become longer and riskier. In addition, what the traffickers ask for has increased considerably. Until a year ago, migrants paid between $8,000 and $15,000 to ‘coyotes’ who helped sneak them into the US. Now the fee is between $20,000 and $25,000.
“These are things that make people think a little more, but it still exists.”
In any case, the decrease in the number of Ecuadorians detained at the border with Mexico fell from 5,675 in March 2021 to 986 in the same month of 2022, according to data from the United States Customs and Border Protection Office.
In September 2021, the last month in which Ecuadorians were able to enter Mexico without a visa, the number of detainees at the US border was 7,419.
In the first quarter of this year there are 2,113 Ecuadorians detained in their attempt to enter the United States illegally.