Bootleg Immigration Services Dash the American Dream
By Maggie Hyde
March 11, 2010
Early in her career as a tax and immigration notary, Maria Meneses received a lucrative but risky business proposition.
A man approached her and said that if the two of them combined their skills, they could be rich. He was not a lawyer, but he wanted to open an immigration legal advisory service.
The practice would have been illegal. She turned him down.
“I want to work honestly,” she told him.
Meneses, 46, has been helping people with tax and immigration papers for 17 years on Chicago’s North Side, translating forms and recommending attorneys. And in a line of work where honest practices and sound reputations are not a given, she is proud that some of her customers have been coming to her for more than a decade.
The business offer that Meneses received when she was starting out, though, is not unusual.
In immigrant communities around the country, small, transient legal consulting businesses crop up. In Hispanic communities, they are known as “notarios.” Often, they promise to get immigrants legal status, green cards and asylum for an exorbitant price.
But usually, their methods are unsound, and the advice they give is incorrect, because they are not lawyers.
The legal fallout
Many immigrants end up in the offices of Chicago immigration lawyers like Caroline Schoenberger, after their cases have been hurt by operations that give bad advice or use fake documents. Because their cases were mishandled by notarios, she said many immigrants who might have been able to stay in the U.S. are deported.
“I see it everyday,” said Caroline Schoenberger, a Chicago immigration attorney. “It’s an extremely sad situation.”
In addition to the work she’s done in her own practice, Schoenberger testified for the Illinois legislation on the issue and helped write Chicago laws aimed at shutting down notarios. She was formerly Chicago’s commissioner of consumer services, and the supervisor of the attorney general’s office, both of which have immigration fraud-prevention campaigns.
In her 25-year career, Schoenberger has filed more than 100 cases against organizations that have committed some sort of immigration fraud, which attorneys classify as unauthorized practice of law.
“This was one of my causes,” she said.
It is difficult to prevent the fraud with laws, she said, because the victims are often illegal and undocumented immigrants, who are not familiar with American government and operate outside of the law.
And because this population will continue to grow and demand the services, she said the businesses will keep cropping up, no matter what laws are in place.
“This is a significant problem,” she said. “Even if the law were enforced to the letter, you’d still have a problem.”
Making matters worse
In her community, Meneses said, she has seen many people get deported because their case needed to be handled by a lawyer, but they went to a bootleg office instead.
Immigrants are sabotaging their own chances of being able to stay in the U.S. by going to unauthorized immigration advisors, according to Susan Schreiber, a Chicago attorney with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc.
The language barrier and complex system of immigration paperwork can confuse immigrants, Schreiber said, so they don’t know what they’re getting into when they sign a contract with an immigration business.
And the businesses tell people they can apply for benefits they are not eligible for, which results in U.S. Immigration Services red flagging the individual for deportation.
“The lure is that someone is telling you that you qualify for a work permit, and you’re not learned in English, then you sign the form, pay the application fee, and low and behold, you may have, in essence turned yourself into immigration services, ” she explained.
“There have been instances where people apply for asylum and they don’t even know they’ve applied for asylum,” she said.
Targeting the problem
The problem has garnered attention from the legal community and government officials, though, who have started initiatives to raise awareness to stop it.
The city of Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection keeps track of the registered providers of immigration services, and issued a list of those registered in 2009.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office has spearheaded a consumer protection initiative to educate immigrants about the providers, with a hotline they can call to report unethical or unauthorized practices.
The American Bar Association is also trying to slow the metastatic growth of fraudulent immigration service providers around the country, with its FightNotarioFraud project.
Even the Department of Homeland Security has joined the cause in the last year, featuring a page on its Web site telling immigrants the warning signs of an illegitimate service provider.
The problem, Meneses said, is that many undocumented immigrants don’t feel comfortable calling the numbers or reporting malpractice and fraud to the agencies.
She sees people whose citizenship or visa cases are in trouble after being handled ineptly or who have been exploited by other businesses.
“I suggest they call the consumer services and report that person,” she said.
Lost in translation
The providers also exploit the language difficulties that their clients have, sometimes capitalizing on the ambiguities of translation.
In Spanish, the word “notario” means that someone has licensed legal abilities. Fraudulent immigration services sometimes translate the English word “notary” to “notario,” which misrepresents the business.
Because of this, immigration service providers in Illinois may not, by law, translate the words notary, notary public, licensed, attorney, lawyer, or any other word that implies the person is an attorney.
Immigration service providers are also required to post the following notice in their office in both English and the language of their clients:
“I am not an attorney licensed to practice law in Illinois and may not give legal advice or accept fees for legal advice.”
Small mistakes, big consequences
Even trained and licensed immigration lawyers say that in their field, minor mistakes happen that result in dire consequences. One late form, empty blank, or logistical misstep can mean someone failing to gain citizenship or even being deported.
And in a cruel paradox, immigrants can even be wronged by well-meaning nonprofits and religious aid groups that don’t have the experience with the complex immigration system to know that they are hurting rather than helping, some lawyers said.
“I think the immigration laws and procedures are horribly complex,” said Carlina Tapia-Ruano, a Chicago immigration attorney and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Associations. Her opinion is shared by many Chicago lawyers that navigate immigration law.
Even in places like Illinois, where specific laws exist to target notarios, enforcing them can be a whole other matter.
“It’s very difficult” to keep these businesses from springing up, said Donald Kerwin, vice president of programs for the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. “There’s literally thousands of them.”
Some of the fraudulent businesses are competent enough that they have existed for years under the radar, he said.
The real trouble, according to Kerwin, is that because they are not regulated, these businesses can promise a client the moon, and there are no consequences for not delivering.
“Some of them promise benefits that don’t even exist,” he said.
Just around the corner
But for Meneses, the harm that fraudulent immigration services cause is almost personal, because it affects her clients, and exploits her community.
She mentioned one office not too far from hers that is notorious for its treatment of clients.
“They do dirty work,” she said. “They obtain false papers.”
Meneses, who has three children, said she couldn’t fathom knowingly setting someone up for deportation, like other businesses do.
“I don’t know how they can live, doing this,” she said, shaking her head. “But they think about the money.”
CLINIC welcomes your thoughts and comments. When leaving comments please stay on topic and be respectful of others. CLINIC reserves the right to remove posted content that is defamatory.