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Protecting the Undocumented

Almost anyone, who knows of an undocumented person, has heard of the recent scams in Florida and the Bronx, whereby individuals, non-lawyers, brazenly claim to be able to secure work authorizations for the undocumented for the hefty fee of $700.

Many desperate individuals have succumbed to the temptation only to find themselves in a worse predicament: they have not only lost their hard-earned $700 but they have also gotten the attention of the Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) and have become vulnerable to deportation/removal from the U. S.
The scams in Florida and the Bronx are among the two most well-known schemes in recent times. However, every day, certain individuals and entities (notoriously travel agencies and real estate offices) purport to “do immigration”, luring the vulnerable and unsuspecting through expensive trails in quest of the ever elusive green cards.

Practicing law without a license is a crime—the scam artists know this and the people who engage their services know this. But yet over the years immigrant communities have been a magnet for unscrupulous individuals—often immigrants preying on immigrants—where, sometimes, because of Spanish semantics, the distinction between notario (denoting “lawyer” in Spanish communities) and notary public is blurred.

In an effort to protect the public and to punish unauthorized practitioners, the NY City Council this year passed a law which the Department of Consumer Affairs is charged with enforcing. And on September 23, 2004, Governor George Pataki announced that he signed the legislation to prevent the exploitation of immigrants: “Too often immigrants are the victims of unreliable advice and outright scams by so-called immigration consultants. These consultants may not be licensed or properly trained; yet they can get away with charging thousands of dollars to help immigrants navigate the complex naturalization process. This law will help guard against these abuses from taking place.”

The law covers businesses and individuals that state that they provide immigration services. It does not cover attorneys. The businesses/individuals must post surety bonds in the amount of $50,000 and post specified signs that they are not attorneys and cannot provide legal services. They must have a contract with the applicant, and they are not to practice law without a license, nor are they to hold themselves out as possessing special professional skills. Further, the law specifically states: “NO PROVIDER SHALL . . . GIVE LEGAL ADVICE, OR OTHERWISE ENGAGE IN THE PRACTICE OF LAW.” A similar legislation went into effect in Michigan this past October.

Earlier this year Pataki promoted his educational plan, in collaboration with NY State Consumer Protection Board, which was to lead to increased awareness in immigrant communities. A new Immigration Fraud Brochure was widely distributed. The following are among the many caveats:

• Beware of anyone who claims to be able to obtain documents immediately for you from BCIS.
• Beware of anyone who advertises that he or she is a “notario” and can represent you in immigration proceedings. . . . All a notario or notary public can do is verify your identity and witness your signature.
• Beware of travel agencies or real estate offices offering immigration services.
• Determine whether you need an attorney. If a form or legal document is too complicated to understand, try to find an
immigration attorney. You may find that some attorneys charge less than immigration consultants. . . .”

The success of the new legislation depends on the public’s awareness and willingness to lodge complaints against those who violate the law. Unauthorized practitioners or non-lawyers generally have no training and experience in immigration law and cannot represent applicants before CIS. Applications that appear simple on the surface can have complex consequences. An “innocent” lapse may mean the difference between approval or denial, permanent residence or deportation, voluntary departure or removal. What is certain is that immigration practice is not just form completion.

Even the choice of a special form has been held to constitute the practice of law. The Immigration Service’s General Counsel has long concluded that even advising a client as to “whether to file an I-130 requires a careful determination of legal consequences” and in effect constitutes the practice of law. (Memorandum, June 9, 1992.)

Some individuals have been holding themselves as experts in immigration and have filing “papers” for the most outrageous fees, not even charged by attorneys. And when the applicants’ cases end in disaster, these scam artists refer the individuals to attorneys to fix the problem—which sometimes is beyond salvaging.

District attorneys nation-wide are gradually taking a more aggressive stand against immigration providers. Last year Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s office in San Francisco obtained restraining orders against three entities doing immigration paperwork.

Fortunately for the consumer, this has not been a good year for immigration scam artists.

• In February this year the district attorney in Brownsville brought criminal charges against two businesses doing immigration paper work. They were notorious for filing documents and charging large sums of money to unsuspecting immigrants. Texas clearly states only attorneys and Board of Immigration Appeals certified agencies can practice before the Immigration Service.
• Just last month Texas also sued an Oak Cliff operation for providing legal advice to immigrants, charging fees.
• Recently in Virginia a popular spiritual leader from Venezuela was convicted of several counts of visa and immigration fraud in Virginia. His so-called specialty is “religious worker” petitions, and he may have filed over 100 fraudulent applications.

Such parallel cases are well known in the Guyanese community, where many people have been coaxed into making sizeable donations in return for being petitioned for as religious workers.

The undocumented are not entirely blameless in this matter either. Some lack the patience to wait to obtain their visas, and they instead seek to purchase documents, even daring to take the documents to the Department of Motor Vehicles to obtain drivers’ licenses. Others disregard their attorneys’ advice and hang on the scam artists’ promises to obtain work authorization through the filing of premature or frivolous applications.

Admittedly, life is tough without any CIS documentation, and people do end up doing desperate things. However, immigrants are strongly advised to engage the services of licensed attorneys or to call the CIS Customer Service directly, or even to make the trip to the local district office to clarify any questions. CIS personnel may be abrupt and terse, while attorneys may be expensive, but it is better to go those routes than to trust your important case to an unauthorized practitioner who may not only deplete your funds but may also ruin your case—and life.

Dr. Dolly Hassan is supervising attorney at Liberty Center for Immigrants in Richmond Hill, NY 11419. Telephone: 718-847-3757.

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