By Attorneys Robert L. Reeves and Joseph I. Elias
On June 9, 2011, the US Department of Justice commenced a media blitz on its new initiative to combat immigration services scams. The country’s major news media including the New York Times, CBS, ABC, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Post Intelligencer, and the Christian Science Monitor to name a few published stories about the crackdown on those who run scams promising immigration benefits too good to be true. A major clampdown consisting of criminal and civil investigations and prosecutions is underway on those who prey on immigrants. On June 9, Assistant Attorney General, Tony West, announced the government’s new initiative stating, “We have been working together to take a stand against those who prey upon immigrant communities by making promises they do not keep and charging for services they are not qualified to provide.”
Because of the immense complexity of Immigration law, immigrants, both documented and undocumented, are highly vulnerable to victimization from unscrupulous con artists or unqualified persons posing as immigration legal experts. Since immigrants cannot navigate immigration laws alone, the turn to people whom they believe will help them chart these difficult waters. Many find competent help, but far too many are taken advantage of and victimized. Victims succumb to the real-world pressures of costs and many are seduced by the answers they want to hear, such as, they are eligible for immigration benefits.
Immigrants turn to attorneys and non-attorneys such as paralegals and notarios to provide them with immigration advice. Only licensed lawyers are authorized to provide immigration advice which includes assessing a person’s case and informing that person of his or her options. Paralegals and notaries, in contrast, are only authorized to assist immigrants complete and organize their immigration forms. They cannot provide advice or assess an immigrant’s options. Furthermore, scrupulous lawyers are legally and ethically bound to remain abreast of immigration law and provide their clients with frank assessments. At times, this may include telling a client he or she is not eligible for immigration benefits. This legal and ethical obligation act as an insurance policy that attorneys will act in their clients’ best interest and keep them out of harm’s way. The non-attorneys are under no such obligation.
Many immigrants turn to non-attorneys in the belief that they are cost-effective and qualified to handle their matters. The unscrupulous prey on these immigrants promising affordable immigration solutions. They then place these immigrants in immigration harm and/or abscond with their money.
Not only do the unscrupulous deceive their immigrant clients, but, they also attempt to deceive the government with false documents and false statements. These frauds are then attributed to the immigrants subjecting them to serious immigration consequences such as permanent bars from immigration benefits, or even, criminal prosecution. These immigrants have not only lost their money, but may have also lost the ability to immigrate to the US. Many unfortunate victims have found themselves undergoing even stricter government scrutiny with a denial or long delay of immigration benefits because their unscrupulous lawyer or paralegal/notario has been identified by the government as an immigration scammer. Even if their cases are clean, these immigrants have been tainted through their association with the scammer. Many others have found themselves alone, with no one to represent them in hearings before the Immigration Service or Immigration Court.
It is of the utmost importance for victims to consult with competent immigration lawyers to minimize, or, if possible, reverse the damages to their immigration case. They can be helped. Our firm has helped many such victims who believed there was no longer any immigration hope for them to prevail and obtain immigration status. These are some of the most personally rewarding cases for us to win. Victims can find hope. And, this week, the Government just sent a very loud and clear warning that it is hunting those who prey on immigrants. Assistant Attorney General West said, “The Department of Justice, through our United States Attorneys’ Offices and the Civil Division’s Office of Consumer Protection Litigation, is investigating and prosecuting dozens of cases against these so-called ‘notarios.’ Working with investigators at the FBI, ICE, and USCIS, as well as with our state and local partners, we have secured several convictions in the last year, obtaining sentences of up to 8 years in prison and recovering forfeiture and victim restitution in excess of $1.8 million.” This is welcome news for immigrants, victims and non-victims alike.