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

While many excellent private immigration lawyers are out there, the most reliable source of quality assistance is from immigration services nonprofits. But these organizations are crushed by overwhelming demand. Alonso-Yoder’s Ayuda, for example, is one of just 765 nonprofits nationwide that provide free or low-cost legal help to immigrants. One of the three immigration attorneys on staff, Alonso-Yoder works in a windowless office in the Takoma Park neighborhood of D.C., handling about sixty to seventy cases at a time. Her small clinic typically sees twenty new clients a week for consultations, many of whom she turns away due to lack of capacity. The immigration law clinic at George Washington University, directed by law professor Benitez and staffed with the help of law students, faces far more demand than it can handle. In March, the clinic stopped taking new clients for 2013.

The current immigration legal services market, then, is riddled with fraud, under-regulated, and chronically lacking in competent professionals. Now imagine what will happen if Washington passes an immigration bill that sends eleven million new customers with far more technically demanding cases into this system.

The most obvious way to protect immigrants from falling victim to fraud or errors is to recognize the tremendous complexity of the existing structure. Congress should resist the urge to pile on even more onerous requirements in an effort to show how “tough” the new regime will be. But politically, it’s hard to see how that will happen. Already, a sizeable percentage of hard-right conservatives have favored a system that will encourage “self-deportation”—specifically, making requirements so onerous that immigrants choose to leave rather than try to make it through the process. According to the Public Religion Research Institute’s survey, 56 percent of Americans who identify with the Tea Party favor self-deportation, although a majority of Americans overall do not.

Since any immigration bill that gets through Congress will also likely contain legalization requirements far more draconian than what most Americans consider reasonable, can anything be done to make the path toward legal status less perilous for prospective citizens?

The answer is yes. The current Gang of Eight plan, for example, calls for “initial entry, adjustment, and citizenship assistance grants” for nonprofits that provide immigration services. These would help organizations like Ayuda expand their staff and increase the number of clients they can take on. The plan also mandates the creation of the public-private United States Citizenship Foundation to help administer these grants and collect best practices for delivering immigration services.

While these provisions lack the specific commitment of resources to make them real, the inclusion of proposals such as these in the final bill could go a long way toward helping immigrants meet the law’s onerous requirements while avoiding scammers. Congress could go further by eliminating the ban, imposed in 1996, on federally funded “legal services corporations”—such as the Legal Aid Society—from assisting undocumented clients. Given that a principal objective of immigration reform is to bring undocumented immigrants into legal status, this restriction is counterproductive.

A second step is to facilitate tougher enforcement against unscrupulous providers, including notarios. Ayuda’s Alonso-Yoder, for example, is encouraging increased reporting of fraud by helping more victims get restitution. Her group has launched a new effort called Eradicate Notario Deceit, which will provide low-cost legal representation to notario victims who want their money back. In addition to encouraging more reporting, suing notarios will put them on notice that they can no longer act with impunity.

The Gang of Eight plan also includes a provision requiring anyone who helps prepare an immigration form to sign it, just as tax preparers are currently required to sign the returns they work on. That requirement could help make providers more accountable for bad service and bring fraudulent and incompetent ones to the attention of authorities.

A final step is to improve the overall quality of immigration attorneys. One way to do that is to encourage the creation of a special accreditation or certification by private or state bar associations, equivalent to a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. This would require no statutory change by Congress, but it would help excellent lawyers distinguish themselves and would raise the prestige of immigration law more generally, which could attract more aspiring attorneys to the profession.

The passage of immigration reform could be a tremendous victory for all immigrants, not just the eleven million undocumented immigrants currently living in the shadows. But the current debate also carries the seeds of a potential tragedy—the creation of a system that is so complex, so onerous, and so likely to lead to the exploitation of immigrants that it might be more merciful not to pass any reform legislation at all.

Anne Kim is Editor of Republic 3.0.