For the first time, the government is combating scam artists with a collaborative effort under the leadership of the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Federal Trade Commission.
In the past, efforts to crack down on services fraud have run aground over obstacles between jurisdictions and communication breakdowns between federal and local agencies.
Unqualified and unscrupulous lawyers, paralegals and notary publics, or notarios, have infected the system for years. They make promises they can't keep and charge exorbitant fees, often for filling out forms the immigrant could have filled out himself.
Often, these scam artists work out of strip-mall storefronts, or even out of their homes. Sometimes they work under identities that are stolen from legitimate practitioners. As the number of illegal immigrants has grown in the United States, so has the number of con artists who prey on them.
The new plan is better coordinated and built on three principles:
- Enforcement. Federal officials say they will target those who engage in the unauthorized practice of immigration law and aggressively prosecute their cases.
- Education. The government wants to reach out to immigrant communities and educate them about services scams and how to avoid them. Just as important, officials want to inform immigrants about how the federal system works and where they can find legitimate legal advice and representation.
- Collaboration. Cooperation among agencies at the federal, state and local levels is essential to stopping unscrupulous individuals who often operate between jurisdictional boundaries.
"Notarios and other illegal immigration service providers take advantage of unsuspecting immigrants trying to navigate the immigration system," says John Morton, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement director. "ICE will continue to work with our federal, state and local partners to combat notario fraud and protect the integrity of the legal immigration system."
In 2011, ICE agents arrested a West Palm Beach, Fla., man who had posed as an attorney and processed more than 3,000 fraudulent immigration applications. Federal investigators say Levy Garcia-Crespo used the name of a legitimate lawyer while consulting with clients in his home and taking their money.
Federal officials have created a database that contains 6 million immigrant fraud complaints from across the country. More than 2,000 law enforcement agencies at all levels will share the information.
The government's education initiative hopes to reach out to immigrants and guide them to qualified legal help. The government makes printed brochures available in English and Spanish, and materials in 12 additional languages are available online.
Before paying for legal advice, it's important to interview your prospective lawyer and find out exactly what you will be getting for your payment and what your chances of a positive outcome are.
Check with the American Immigration Lawyers Association to find a qualified attorney near you. Also, check with friends in the local immigrant community who may be able to give you a referral based on their personal experiences. But don't be afraid to ask questions.
But often the best advice is just to use common sense. If a prospective lawyer tells you something that sounds too good to be true, it likely is. If if seems like you're paying too much for what you're getting, you probably are.