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< Back to current issue of Immigration Daily < Back to current issue of Immigrant's Weekly

How To Protect Yourself From Becoming A Victim Of Immigration Fraud

by Sardar Durrani, Esq.

In anticipation of drastic immigration policy reform with the new Obama Administration, aliens who are present in the United States need to be more cautious than ever about seeking legal advice with immigration matters. Following is helpful information about immigration law, an individual's rights in receiving services, and practices individuals should employ when seeking assistance with one's immigration matters.

I. Who is allowed to represent you to the USCIS:

According to 8 CFR 292.1(a), a person entitled to representation may be represented by any of the following:

  1. Attorneys in the United States. This includes any attorney who is a member in good standing of the bar of the highest court of any State, possession, territory, Commonwealth, or the District of Columbia, and is not under any order of any court suspending, enjoining, restraining, disbarring, or otherwise restricting him in the practice of law.
  2. Law students and law graduates not yet admitted to the bar. This includes a law student who is enrolled in an accredited law school or a law school graduate who is not yet admitted to the bar, provided that:
    • He or she is appearing at the request of the person entitled to representation;
    • In the case of a law student, he or she has filed a statement that he or she is participating, under the direct supervision of a faculty member, licensed attorney, or accredited representative, in a legal aid program or clinic conducted by a law school or non-profit organization, and that he or she is appearing without direct or indirect remuneration from the alien he or she represents;
    • In the case of a law graduate, he or she has filed a statement that he or she is appearing under the supervision of a licensed attorney or accredited representative and that he or she is appearing without direct or indirect remuneration from the alien he or she represents; and
    • The law student's or law graduate's appearance is permitted by the official before whom he or she wishes to appear (namely an immigration judge, district director, officer-in-charge, regional director, the Commissioner, or the Board). The official or officials may require that a law student be accompanied by the supervising faculty member, attorney, or accredited representative.

  3. Reputable individuals. Any reputable individual of good moral character may act as a representative, provided that:
    • He is appearing on an individual case basis, at the request of the person entitled to representation;
    • He is appearing without direct or indirect remuneration and files a written declaration to that effect;
    • He has a pre-existing relationship or connection with the person entitled to representation (e.g., as a relative, neighbor, clergyman, business associate or personal friend), provided that such requirement may be waived, as a matter of administrative discretion, in cases where adequate representation would not otherwise be available; and
    • His appearance is permitted by the official before whom he wished to appear (namely, a special inquiry officer, district director, officer-in-charge, regional commissioner, the Commissioner, or the Board), provided that such permission shall not be granted with respect to any individual who regularly engages in immigration and naturalization practice or preparation, or holds himself out to the public as qualified to do so.

  4. Accredited representatives. A person representing a non-profit religious, charitable, social service, or similar organization established in the United States and recognized as such by the Board of Immigration Appeals may designate a representative or representatives to represent clients in immigration matters.
  5. Accredited officials. An accredited official, in the United States, of the government to which an alien owes allegiance, if the official appears solely in his official capacity and with the alien's consent.
  6. Attorneys outside the United States. An attorney other than one described in 8 CFR 1.1(f), who is licensed to practice law and is in good standing in a court of general jurisdiction of the country in which he/she resides and who is engaged in such practice. Provided that he/she represents persons only in matters outside the geographical confines of the United States (i.e. the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands), and that the official before whom he/she wishes to appear allows such representation as a matter of discretion.

II. Beware Of Notarios:

In some Latin American countries, a notario or notario publico is a licensed lawyer. In the United States, A NOTARY PUBLIC IS NOT A LAWYER and cannot give legal advice or provide legal services. A United States notary public can administer oaths and witness signatures.

Many non-lawyers refer to themselves as notarios to prey on immigrants with limited English skills and little understanding of the American legal system. Many illegally practice immigration law without a license. They are able to take advantage of the fact that the English term notary and the Spanish term notario are similar in spelling, but very different in meaning.

In a common scam, a person obtains a notary public license but presents him- or herself to Spanish-speaking clients as a notario publico, or licensed attorney, who can help with the immigration process. A notario or a notario publico cannot give legal advice about immigration status, getting a work permit, getting family to the United States, or getting the right to stay in the United States. They cannot tell you what forms to use or what answers to put on the forms. Also, some notarios falsely claim that they have a close and special relationship with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), and can obtain special immigration favors for their clients or know of secret immigration laws.

Notarios often charge excessive fees for their services and mishandle or even lose important immigration documents. Many charge hundreds or thousands of dollars merely to process immigration applications. In many cases, these scam artists charge high fees for filing unnecessary documents, perform poor quality services that jeopardize clients' cases, and then disappear after receiving payment for their "services."

Their fraudulent practices put immigrants at risk because they lack real knowledge of immigration law. They charge fees to prepare applications for nonexistent immigration programs, or for existing programs for which the client does not qualify. Before you decide to get help with immigration matters, and before you pay any money, educate yourself so that you can make the right decision about what kind of immigration help you need and who should provide that assistance.

III. Unauthorized Practice of Law:

Notarios, notary publics and immigration consultants may NOT represent you before USCIS. They may not give you legal advice on what immigration benefit you may apply for or what to say in an immigration interview. These individuals may NOT hold themselves out as qualified in legal matters or in immigration and naturalization procedure and may only charge nominal (inexpensive) fees as regulated by state law. In many other countries, the word "notario" means that the individual is an attorney, but that is not true in the United States. Individuals seeking help with immigration questions should be very careful before paying money to non-attorneys.

Notary publics and immigration consultants MAY help you by filling in the blanks on pre-printed USCIS forms with information you provide or by translating documents. Individuals helping you in this way are required by law to disclose to USCIS their assistance by completing the section at the bottom of a petition or application concerning the "Preparer" of the formNotarios, immigration consultants, and paralegals who receive any remuneration (either directly or indirectly) for their assistance may not represent clients in U.S. immigration matters because they do not fall under any of the categories described in 8 CFR 292.1(a). State and provincial governments also consider these individuals to be engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. Many U.S. states have successfully prosecuted these individuals. In contrast, many Canadian provinces have a dismal record in prosecuting individuals who are engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.

IV. Preventative Measures:

The best recourse you have is to take steps to ensure you do not become a victim. Following are things you should do to protect yourself from persons who fraudulently portray themselves as immigration representatives.

  • DO NOT sign blank applications, petitions or other papers.
  • DO NOT sign documents that you do not understand.
  • DO NOT sign documents that contain false statements or inaccurate information.
  • DO NOT make payments to a representative without getting a receipt.
  • DO NOT pay expensive fees to non-attorneys.
  • DO NOT use websites that ask you to pay for forms that are available at no cost on the USCIS website.1
  • DO obtain copies of all documents prepared or submitted for you.
  • DO verify an attorney's or accredited representative's eligibility to represent you.
  • DO report any representative's unlawful activity to USCIS, State Bar Associations and/or State Offices of Attorneys General.

V. Recourse:

If you think that you have been cheated by a notario, notario publico, or any other individual or entity, you should contact the USCIS, your State Attorney General's Office, your State's Bar Association and your State's Division of Consumer Affairs. If you cannot afford a private attorney, you may qualify for help from Legal Services or Legal Action organizations. To find out more about laws that protect you from notarios within your state, you can contact the American Bar Association or your State Attorney General's Office. Following are websites you can visit for more information:

  1. Board of Immigration Appeals notice against fraudulent activity of notarios: http://www.usdoj.gov/eoir/press/08/NotariosNoticeProtectionsCAFINAL112008.pdf
  2. American Immigration Lawyers Assocaition State Complaint Information: http://www.aila.org/content/default.aspx?docid=26749
  3. United States Citizen and Immigration Services Finding Legal Advice: http://www.uscis.gov/legaladvice
  4. Board of Immigration Appeals Free and Low Cost Legal Representatives: http://www.usdoj.gov/eoir/probono/legresources.htm
  5. Board of Immigration Appeals, list of free legal service providers by state: http://www.usdoj.gov/eoir/probono/states.htm


End Notes

1Examples of such websites are http://www.usimmigrationsupport.org/greencard.html which charges $50 - $100or more for forms that are availabe at no cost on the USCIS website, and http://www.immspec.com/


About The Author

Sardar N. Durrani, Esq. practices exclusively in immigration law. He provides strategic counseling to corporations health care institutions, and individuals from a wide array of professions. He is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Mr. Durrani is married, has four beautiful kids and spends his free time flying.


The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.


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