The U.S. government recently launched a national initiative to combat immigration service scams. Led by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, the measure is intended to fight the unauthorized practice of immigration law (UPIL) on all fronts.
UPIL is a widespread practice that takes many forms, ranging from scammers posing as licensed attorneys, immigration experts or government officials, to individuals who unintentionally provide wrong advice that ends up harming the immigrants they are trying to help.
Victims are mostly immigrants unfamiliar with the immigration system, many of whom do not speak English, and some of whom are even illiterate in their native languages.
Typical cases of scamming include “notarios” who provide legal services but are not authorized to do so. In the United States, there is no requirement to be a licensed attorney in order to become a notary public, while in many Latin American countries and in the Philippines, notaries are usually lawyers. These “notarios” capitalize on the misunderstanding caused by this difference in order to perpetrate fraud on unknowing immigrants.
Another type of scam involves businesses that claim that they can get you a guaranteed visa, green card or employment authorization document, usually for an excessive fee. Also engaged in UPIL are tax preparers who also perform immigration services and travel agents who for a fee give advice on how to remain in the U.S. after one’s nonimmigrant visa has expired. Sometimes there are attorneys that sell their names and license numbers to paralegals and others who then advertise themselves as attorneys.
Another example of UPIL could be found online such as websites that charge for immigration forms and materials that are available for free from the USCIS website, and emails saying that the recipient “won” the diversity visa lottery even though he or she did not go through the official government application process.
These scammers advertise by word of mouth, on the internet, and through paid advertisements in the radio, newspapers and the phone book, fooling their victims into believing that they are legitimate.
One of those who have been charged is a Filipina from San Jose, California, who ran an immigration consulting business for 18 years. She had advertised in major Filipino-American newspapers. She has been indicted on charges of encouraging illegal immigration, mail fraud, filing false tax returns and money laundering.
The thrust of the national initiative against UPIL is threefold. First, it aims to educate the public on how to recognize and avoid immigration scams and to choose legal advice and representation wisely. Second, it encourages the reporting of scams to authorities and ramps up enforcement actions at the federal, state and local levels. Third, it fosters collaboration among agencies to support investigation and prosecution efforts and increase the number of legitimate organizations and accredited representatives.
The efforts began early last year when USCIS partnered with seven cities – Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, Fresno, Los Angeles, New York and San Antonio – to learn more about UPIL and its impact on the community. Meetings were held with local agencies and stakeholders to discuss the scope of unauthorized practice of immigration law in each jurisdiction and the mechanisms in place to fight it.