Federal and state officials banded together yesterday in Seattle to expose immigration services scams and direct immigrants to real help.
Officials from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office (USCIS) and the Washington Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division held a joint news conference today at the Attorney General’s Office. The event spotlighted local enforcement actions and outreach efforts and complemented a nationwide initiative by federal, state and local government agencies that includes three pillars: education, collaboration and enforcement.
“The Federal Trade Commission will not tolerate anyone who does business by lying to their customers for money,” said FTC Assistant Regional Director Dave Horn. Horn and FTC Attorney Miry Kim discussed two recent FTC cases, including one where defendants scammed millions of dollars from thousands of consumers nationwide.
“The victims were people who were lawfully in the United States and seeking immigration benefits from what they thought was the U.S. government,” Kim said. “As a direct result, the commission believes that many people lost their legal status.”
USCIS District Director Anne Arries Corsano spotlighted the agency’s new campaign, “The Wrong Help Can Hurt”, that provides immigrants with the information they need to make smart choices when seeking legal advice and representation on immigration matters.
“The unauthorized practice of law endangers the integrity of our immigration system, as well as victimizes members of immigrant communities,” Corsano said.
The Washington Attorney General’s Office has been a leader in taking enforcement action against those who aren’t qualified to provide legal advice to immigrants, with assistant attorneys general Pedro Bernal and Jim Sugarman taking legal action against 15 providers since 2009.
“These providers charge consumers thousands and thousands of dollars for a service they aren’t authorized to give and for legal advice they aren’t qualified to provide,” Bernal said. “It’s a very sad situation when you see someone pay $5,000 for assistance on an immigration issue when a lawyer would charge less … and probably obtain the benefit that this person deserves under the law.”
Victims have been found in every immigrant community in Washington, Bernal said. Latinos, in particular, are vulnerable due to a frequently exploited translation hitch. Individuals have taken advantage of the linguistic similarities between the Spanish term “notario publico,” which in Mexico and some other Latin American countries means “attorney,” with the English term “notary public,” which implies no legal expertise whatsoever.
“We’ve obtained court orders commanding these providers of immigration services to stop their unlawful activities, to make restitution to their victims, pay hefty civil penalties to the state and to reimburse taxpayers for the expense of investigating these cases and bringing legal action,” Bernal said.
Additionally, the AGO requested a bill recently approved by the Legislature that changed state law. It cracks down on the use of the term of “notario”, eliminates the ability to file as an “immigration assistant” with the state, and imposes additional legal consequences for making false representations about being skilled in immigration law. Individuals, nonprofit organizations and law school clinics authorized to provide immigration services under federal law aren’t impacted.
Officials believe the new legislation, combined with education and outreach efforts, will help prevent consumer harm.
CONSUMER EDUCATION AND RESOURCES:
- FTC education materials in English, Spanish, Chinese and Korean explain how to avoid and report immigration services fraud, and how to find legitimate no-cost or low-cost immigration advice from authorized providers. As part of the campaign, the FTC also is rolling out six new radio public service announcements in English, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese that warn about illegal notarios and immigration consultants, and direct consumers to the materials on the FTC’s website: www.ftc.gov/immigration for more information or to report scams.
- UCSIS provides materials in English and 13 other languages at www.uscis.gov/avoidscams. The agency unveiled a new brochure, a poster, public service announcements for use on radio and in print publications, billboard and transit ads, and a new Web resource center that includes a video. Resources are also available at www.uscis.gov/citizenship.
- The Washington Attorney General’s Consumer Resource Center accepts complaints about immigration scams and the unauthorized practice law. Victims may file a complaint online at www.atg.wa.gov or call 1-800-551-4636 between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays. Written complaints can be filed in Spanish at /en-espanol. A brochure is also available in Chinese.
- Free information for immigrants and refugees can be found online at www.washingtonlawhelp.org.
- To find a licensed immigration attorney, contact your local county bar association, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, www.aila.org, or the Latina/o Bar Association of Washington, www.lbaw.org.
- If you are low-income and have a non-criminal legal problem outside King County, call the Northwest Justice Project’s CLEAR hotline at 1-888-201-1014 from 9:15 a.m. until 12:15 p.m. weekdays. In King County, call 211 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. weekdays.
- The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project provides legal services to immigrants and refugees and offers workshops for those who want to know if they are qualified to petition for their family members to get legal status in the U.S. Information is available online at www.nwirp.org. Western Washington residents may call 800-445-5771 or 206-587-4009. In Eastern Washington, call 888-756-3641. Calls are answered on weekdays; ask for the Citizenship Unit.
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