Immigrants are particularly vulnerable to fraud because of a mixture of their insecure status in the United States and lack of knowledge of the law. Since many applicants for immigrant-related services do not read or speak English, they must trust that the information provided by a preparer is accurate and properly translated. Unfortunately, thousands of unsuspecting immigrants file frivolous applications through unscrupulous immigration consultants who promise employment authorization and green cards. Consequently, these victims are often placed in removal proceedings and deported. Immigration consultants are prohibited from giving legal advice and easily violate state law without repercussions since there is negligible oversight and minimal enforcement of the law.
On Sept. 13, 2016, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed unanimously to instruct county counsel, director of consumer and business affairs, treasurer and tax collector, ex officio license issuer and other relevant departments to report back to the board within 90 days with a proposed ordinance that would license and regulate immigration consultants to diminish immigration services fraud. An ordinance can create a countywide business license for state authorized immigration consultants setting a maximum fee that immigration consultants may charge for non-legal immigration form preparation services and administrative penalties for violations of the ordinance.
The state of California already authorizes immigration consultants to provide non-legal immigration services under sections 22440-22449 of the California Business and Professions Code and provides criminal and civil sanctions for violators. An unregistered immigration consultant is in violation of the law if he or she provides immigration services and is not otherwise authorized under state or federal law.
An immigration consultant must be in compliance with the Business and Professions Code. Before offering services, all immigration consultants must “conspicuously display” in their office certain notices in boldface type or print, and each character at least one inch in height and width. the notice must state the full name and address of the consultant, providing evidence of compliance with bonding requirement s and state that the consultant is not an attorney.
An immigration consultant must post a conspicuous sign, stating that he or she may not accept a fee for referring the client to another person for services that the consultant cannot or will not perform. In addition, it is unlawful for any immigration consultant to make false or misleading statements, or guarantees or promises to a client, unless the statement is in writing and is based on factual information. Before providing any services to a client, the registered immigration consultant must draw up a written contract in English, as well as the client’s language. It must include the services to be performed, the cost of those services, a 10-point bold type conspicuous statement stating that the consultant is not an attorney and cannot act in the capacity of an attorney, and that the client has the right to rescind the contract within 72 hours.
Violations may incur criminal penalties. the first violation is a misdemeanor and the second is a felony. While violations are rampant in the county of Los Angeles, law enforcement agencies either lack the resources or are hesitant to handle these particular matters because most prosecutors lack the technical knowledge about immigration law to fully understand the extent of a violation.
The state law also authorizes a private civil action where civil penalties, treble damages, injunctive relief and attorney fees can be awarded. Sadly, many victims are too fearful to pursue a civil claim or have difficulties finding an attorney that will take the case on a contingency basis when the violator has not posted a bond. In the county of Los Angeles, there are numerous registered immigration consultants that are in violation of state law and many more not even registered.
While immigration services are crucial for individuals who find it practically impossible to steer through the changing laws and policies alone, there has been a countywide epidemic of immigration fraud directed against foreign nationals and their families. Unscrupulous businesses and individuals prey on people working their way through the maze of immigration law and extract hundreds or thousands of dollars by violating state law. Those who make their living defrauding foreign nationals oft en pose as immigration lawyers or having a special license to practice immigration law. Since many offenders take advantage of immigrants by working in the shadows and are not subject to inspection under a current, regulatory ordinance, it is impossible to determine how many such illegitimate businesses exist.
There is a need for local governments, prosecutors and the private bar to enforce laws and regulate immigration service providers. If Los Angeles County successfully produces a legislation to combat immigration consultant fraud and deceptive practices, thousands of county residents will potentially benefit. Alan Diamante