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Shady or fake immigration lawyers take tens of thousands of dollars from clients who never make it to the United States. A company creates a Web site that looks just like that of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and collects hundreds of thousands of dollars in fake visa fees. Accountants who play up their legal qualifications take on new immigrants' cases that they have no business representing. These are the kinds of scams that target immigrants, legal and illegal, every day. And this is what the federal government says it wants to combat with a new crackdown on immigration scams. According to The New York Times, immigration authorities, federal and state prosecutors, the Federal Trade Commission, lawyers' groups, and advocate groups are cooperating on a major new push to protect immigrants from those who would prey on them.

The effort involves a blitz of advertising to alert immigrants on how to recognize fake lawyers and consultants, and an effort by prosecutors to bring criminal cases to serve as examples. A program by the immigration court system will expand the number of local nonprofit organizations trained and certified to provide basic legal services to immigrants.

But reprobates have been preying on this particularly vulnerable population for some time, and the federal government hasn't thrown this much weight behind this kind of enforcement push before. So why now? As several stories out today suggest, it could be because immigration is gearing up to be a major issue in the 2012 elections.

In his column in the Boston Globe today. Joshua Green writes that, while immigration rarely takes the spotlight in Washington's political debate, it "has become a central and divisive force in American politics, and could have major implications for the next election." He points out that census data shows a fast-growing legal immigrant population, with the country set to become "majority-minority" by 2040. At the Houston Chronicle, Jeanine Kevar covered a study by two sociologists that found, for the first time, that more immigrants had college degrees than had failed to finish high school. An immigrant population increasing in size and education means that more people have gone through the immigration process and have a personal stake in seeing it improved.

On the flip side, Green points out that after the recent recession, "Whites are far more pessimistic about their prospects and their children’s prospects--and many mistakenly believe that illegal immigrants are the primary culprit." And the lack of public conversation in Washington, he says, exacerbates that. "The aftershocks of the immigration debate, which was never really resolved, but still permeates how people look at the economy and the future of the country; and the bad economy... has made whites feel particularly pessimistic and sharpened these attitudes."

It's impossible to say definitively whether the federal crackdown on immigration abuses stems from some political savvy going on behind U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But if immigration does emerge as a major issue in the next round of elections, President Barack Obama will be glad to be able to show his agencies are up to speed in handling their enforcement duties.

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