Features

July/ August 2013 Storefront Coyotes

Meet the con artists who “help” immigrants with their visa problems—and who will get rich if Congress passes a “tough” immigration reform bill.

By Anne Kim

There are multiple channels to a green card, depending on whether you’re coming to America because of a job, because you have family members who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, or because you are a refugee from political or physical persecution in your home country. Each channel requires its own set of forms, a myriad of supporting documents and the potential involvement of multiple federal agencies (particularly if something goes wrong): the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to handle the initial application; Immigration and Customs Enforcement to handle any deportation proceedings; and the Department of Justice to handle appeals in the immigration courts if an application is denied or a deportation is contested. Some cases also involve the Customs and Border Protection agency. Each agency, as well as the courts, is also constantly churning out case law, policy memos, and regulations that practitioners must keep up with. A mistake anywhere along the way can lead to deportation; in 2012, Barack Obama’s administration deported a record 409,849 immigrants.

Immigration lawyer Jie Li tells of a client who had taken it upon himself to fill out the green card application for his foreign-born wife. Despite what should have been a straightforward process, the client—who was, ironically, a USCIS employee—committed a paperwork error that triggered deportation proceedings. JoJo Annobil, the lead immigration attorney for the New York Legal Aid Society, describes the current regime as “zero tolerance.” “Every mistake is magnified,” he says. He cites, for example, a client who was a legal resident, the spouse of a U.S. citizen, and the father of three American-born children. Before coming to Annobil, this client had tried to file his paperwork himself, but accidentally sent his forms to the wrong address, thereby missing a crucial deadline—enough to trigger deportation proceedings.

Trying to navigate these treacherous bureaucratic waters on one’s own is madness. But finding capable and honest professional assistance is itself a crapshoot. The market for immigration services is strewn with rip-offs, such as Web sites that charge people for forms that can be downloaded for free from the USCIS. One such site of dubious value is www.us-immigration.com, which mimics a government site and justifies charging for forms with the offer of 24/7 phone advice and “personalized instructions.” The site’s owner, American Immigration Center, Inc., has received enough complaints to earn an F grade from the Better Business Bureau.

Drive through a Latino neighborhood and you’re likely to see signs for “notarios publicos,” immigration consultants who are not lawyers and operate in a legal gray area. While the clerical act of filling out forms is not technically the unauthorized practice of law, offering advice on how to complete a form—or even just making those decisions on someone’s behalf—crosses the legal line. Even if a notario doesn’t blatantly advertise him- or herself as an attorney, as Manuel Alban did, he or she may still be offering unauthorized legal advice.

Notarios also deliberately compound the confusion for consumers by using that title. In many Latin American countries, a notario publico is a respected designation for lawyers (unlike the term “notary public” in the United States, which indicates someone who is legally qualified only to witness signatures). In Mexico, earning the title of notario publico requires passing a special test, having a clean criminal record, and being over the age of twenty-five. Though not every notario in the U.S. is a scam artist, when it comes to immigration law bad advice can be extremely dangerous for unsuspecting clients. “Maybe [the notarios] are ill-intentioned or they’re just ill-informed, but either way you’re left holding the bag,” says Cori Alonso-Yoder, an immigration attorney with the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Ayuda.

Authorities have made some efforts in recent years to step up enforcement against fraud. In 2011, the FTC, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice jointly launched the National Initiative to Combat Immigration Services Scams to crack down on notarios and immigration services fraud. The American Immigration Lawyers Association, the specialty bar association for immigration attorneys, also began an effort called Stop Notario Fraud to help educate consumers and encourage them to report suspected fraud.

Nevertheless, enforcement has been relatively weak. The FTC’s case against Loma, for example, was one of merely sixteen federal actions brought against immigration service providers between 2008 and 2011. A major reason for the tepid enforcement is that undocumented immigrants are often reluctant to draw official (and potentially negative) attention to themselves by reporting a crime. In fact, some victims of irresponsible and fraudulent notarios may never get the chance to come forward because the notarios’ errors trigger deportation proceedings. (According to Valeria Treves of the advocacy group New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), this is a tactic notarios explicitly use: they file for immigration benefits that people clearly aren’t eligible to receive, charging fees for each application; their client never gets a visa; and the mistake draws the notice of immigration authorities, who may begin deportation proceedings. Meanwhile, the notario in question escapes scot-free because the client might be too busy fighting deportation proceedings to file a complaint against the notario.)

Moreover, because the FTC doesn’t pursue cases on behalf of individuals, merely filing a complaint doesn’t help a would-be immigrant get his money back—a further disincentive to complain. Even if they wanted to complain, victims of fraudulent notarios are often so financially drained by their experience that they can’t pursue restitution on their own, says immigration lawyer Li.

As a result of all these factors, only 716 complaints were filed against immigration services providers in 2012, according to the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book. That’s four more than the number of complaints filed against modeling agencies (712), and a couple hundred fewer than were filed against funeral homes (936).

Even if all the notarios were shut down and every visa seeker were assigned a credentialed immigration attorney, the difficulty of finding reliable advice and assistance would persist. Part of the problem is that immigration law is both very complex and poorly paid. The result is that it’s not a high-demand specialty for young law school graduates. “The immigration bar has a bad reputation because there are a lot of bad immigration lawyers out there,” says George Washington University immigration law professor Alberto Benitez.

This problem is compounded by the fact that immigration lawyers often have to earn their paychecks on volume, because most of their clients aren’t rich. “Their bread and butter is doing as many cases as they possibly can,” says Benitez.

“You’re not going to make it otherwise.” Like doctors paid by the number of patients they see and the number of tests they order, immigration lawyers have an incentive to take as many clients as they can—and to file as many applications as they can, even if the clients are unlikely to benefit.

Anne Kim is a writer based in Washington, D.C., and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.