Federal Authorities Cracking Down on Immigration Scams

It has been a problem for years: scam artists cheating immigrants out of their hard-earned savings, promising to help them with complicated immigration paperwork, only to make off with their money and leave them without a legal leg to stand on. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has teamed up with other federal agencies, including the Department of Justice (DOJ), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in a national program to combat these immigration scams. (See National Initiative to Combat Immigration Services Scams, USCIS Press Release, 09.Jun.2011.) The multi-agency effort aims to deter immigration scam artists from engaging in the unauthorized practice of immigration law (UPIL); according to USCIS, this occurs when “legal advice and/or representation regarding immigration matters is provided by an individual who is not an attorney or accredited representative” – that is, not someone with the specialized knowledge and expertise to properly handle the complexities of an immigration case.

Immigrants are especially vulnerable to UPIL if they don’t speak English well, or otherwise lack the education and cross-cultural knowledge needed to know when the promises made by a scam artist are simply too good to be true. Immigration scam artists often give themselves impressive-sounding titles that suggest some level of skill in immigration matters, but these puffed-up “credentials” only disguise their lack of real expertise. In the Latino community, for instance, immigration scam artists typically call themselves “notarios” – notaries – a term that evokes a degree of legal proficiency and authority, but one that’s entirely meaningless in the American system.

According to the USCIS, it and its partner agencies will combat UPIL through a new program that has three key elements:

  • “Enforcement – encouraging individuals and communities to report scams and ramping up enforcement actions at the federal, state and local levels;
  • “Education – educating the public about how to recognize and avoid immigration scams and how to make smart choices when choosing legal advice and representation; and
  • “Continued Collaboration – fostering interagency collaboration to support investigation and prosecution efforts, and increasing the number of legitimate immigration legal service provider organizations and accredited representatives, particularly in underserved areas.”

The USCIS has developed web-based resources to help victims of UPIL report their victimization to the proper state authorities. It also has given its Fraud Detection and National Security officers access to the FTC’s Sentinel network, a secure database of consumer fraud complaints, which will enable them to zero in on UPIL offenders. In addition, USCIS and its partner agencies have produced public education and outreach materials in several languages, including English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Haitian Creole, French, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Urdu. Further information on the initiative – including a USCIS factsheet – is available online.

These efforts to combat UPIL will improve the integrity of our immigration legal system by weeding out unscrupulous, incompetent, and unlicensed scam artists. Immigration law is complex, and fraudulent or otherwise incompetent practitioners have no business advising immigrants on matters that involve their livelihoods, their family unity, their very hopes and dreams and plans for the future. Too much is at stake! We applaud the work of the USCIS and its partner agencies, and hope their outreach materials gain broad circulation in the coming weeks and months. Immigrants need to know: there is no substitute for competent and experienced immigration counsel! As always, if you need immigration advice, the Murthy Law Firm stands ready to assist you.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.