If as appears increasingly likely comprehensive immigration reform legislation dies in this Congress, there will be one silver lining: halting a headlong trend towards setting up conditions for legalization and/or citizenship that mainly benefitted a new industry of immigration “assistance” con artists preying on people facing potential deportation.

As Anne Kim explains in the July-August issue of the Washington Monthly, this a major problem that could get quickly worse:

While politicians jockey to craft a “tough” bill that piles on hurdles and paperwork for immigrants, unscrupulous entrepreneurs are likely salivating over the opportunities….

Immigration advocates already report an uptick in profiteering. Even though legislation has yet to be passed—and even when it has been passed, it will likely take months for the government to issue regulations governing the process—fraudsters are already claiming that visas are available and that a waiting list is being developed. “The ink isn’t even close to dry, and people are creating the false impression that people should start signing up now,” says the New York Immigration Coalition’s [Jackie] Vimo.

In fact, the biggest potential beneficiaries of reform might not be the eleven million undocumented immigrants eager for legal status. Instead, the winners might be waiting in the shadows: an army of “storefront coyotes”—a variation on the notorious profiteers who charge thousands of dollars to smuggle desperate immigrants across the border.

Even without new conditions for immigrants, existing immigration law is exceptionally complex, and is administered by a confusing welter of federal agencies with their own bureaucracies and paperwork requirements. People facing deportation (many of whom do not speak English fluently) quite rightly don’t try to navigate the system themselves, and instead rely on notarios publicos, immigration consultants who assist with paperwork and offer advice of wildly varying quality (and legality, since they are not lawyers). Immigration “reforms” that add to the paperwork while creating a rigid timeline for compliance would pour immense sums of money into this shadowy industry, making abuses almost certain. And legitimate sources of assistance, including the many nonprofit organizations offering legal aid to people with immigration problems, could simply be overwhelmed.

The current immigration legal services market, then, is riddled with fraud, under-regulated, and chronically lacking in competent professionals. Now imagine what will happen if Washington passes an immigration bill that sends eleven million new customers with far more technically demanding cases into this system.

Kim also notes that the new fees, penalties and back-tax payments required by the Senate-passed immigration bill (which would only become more onerous in any bill that could survive the House) will place pressure on often-impecunious immigrants who will fall prey to predatory lenders.

So if congressional action on immigration reform is again delayed, perhaps the lost time can be spent designing a much simpler system. It’s understandable that supporters of reform find it necessary to placate opponents by accepting, one after another, conditions for legalization or citizenship that satisfy one or another claim about unworthy beneficiaries. But at some point this kind of “reform” becomes a thinly veiled form of self-deportation, subjecting powerless people to the torments of pointless bureaucracy and the tender mercies of those willing to “help” them for a fat fee.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.