SILVER SPRING, Maryland – The unauthorized practice of immigration law is a nationwide problem with serious implications for immigrants and the legal profession, according to a new report released July 7 by the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., in collaboration with the American University Washington College of Law Immigrant Justice Clinic.
State laws to regulate the unauthorized practice of immigration law vary widely, as do the types of recourse available to people who have been victimized by unscrupulous practitioners, found the report, “Stopping Immigration Services Scams: A Tool for Advocates and Lawmakers.” Students from the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the Washington College of Law studied laws and policies to analyze the situation in each state. The report includes recommendations for how policymakers should address deficiencies to better protect vulnerable immigrants from those who would take advantage of them and preserve the integrity of the legal profession.
Key recommendations include:
- States should enact and enforce criminal and civil penalties against those who practice immigration law without authorization
- States should require that those who offer immigration legal services be either attorneys in good standing or non-lawyers who are specially licensed to do so
- Use of the term “notario,” should be regulated in state immigration laws because it is often misunderstood by immigrants due to its different meanings in their home countries
As the largest nonprofit legal support network in the United States, CLINIC’s affiliates regularly see clients who previously have been victimized by unauthorized practitioners, said CLINIC Executive Director Jeanne Atkinson.
“There are more than 1,800 federally accredited legal representatives in the country and more than half work for organizations that are within CLINIC’s network,” Atkinson said. “They represent tens of thousands of immigrants annually in filing visa petitions, applications for naturalization or to defend against deportation.”
The students’ supervisor, American University Law Professor Amanda Frost, said that the project was an education in the frequency with which immigrants are defrauded by those purporting to help them. “We were also surprised that 16 states do not protect their citizens against the unauthorized practice of immigration law, and many others provide minimal regulation and light penalties for violations.”
Several of the law students said the timing of their work on the report drove home the importance of protecting immigrants from practices that could make them even more vulnerable to losing their status and facing deportation.
“While working on this project, federal immigration policy became much more aggressive,” noted Doran Shemin, one of the participating students. “Along with these changes came a heightened need to protect our immigrant neighbors. This report and the research behind it brought to light how many state governments could create or improve their laws to protect their immigrant communities.”
Another student, Jeannesis Rodriguez, said that she was struck by how comprehensive immigration reform might reduce the risk of fraud. “It is crucial for state legislators to recognize the harm associated with the unauthorized practice of immigration law and endeavor to provide meaningful legal remedies for the many immigrants who have been or are at risk of being defrauded.”
Christy Williams, a CLINIC staff attorney who coordinated the project with the student group, said: “Now is the time for advocates and local leaders to work together on educating the public about the dangers of seeking immigration assistance from the wrong source. They can use this report to analyze their states’ protections against fraudulent immigration services and enact laws that will strengthen those laws.