The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) has launched a new website, www.stopnotariofraud.org, to help consumers of immigration services avoid becoming victims of dishonest behavior by non-lawyers who hold themselves out as providing immigration services. The site also has state-by-state guides on how to verify information about lawyers, what kinds of questions to ask when entering into an agreement, and how to file complaints against notarios and unscrupulous lawyers. The site is in Spanish and English for now.
In many countries, public notarios or consultants are allowed to provide legal advice. But in the United States the rules are different. First of all, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is responsible for issuing benefits, border control and enforcement, as well as the Immigration Courts or Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), have specific rules about who can appear before their agencies. An authorized representative making an appearance whether in person or filing an application on someone’s behalf must file specific forms with applications or litigation documents verifying their eligibility to appear. Eligible persons are attorneys admitted to any state in the U.S., its territories or possessions provided there are no orders of suspension or disbarment against the attorney. Accredited representatives are also allowed to represent people. They must be certified by the Board of Immigration Appeals and usually work for charitable or religious organizations that charge no fee or a minimal fee. Certain law students or graduates who meet specific requirements may also assist immigrants. Friends, relatives or clergy may assist an applicant provided no fee is paid and the agency or the court agrees to their presence at an interview or hearing.
An attorney’s credentials can be verified with the State Bar organization in which the attorney is admitted. For example, here in Washington, that would be the Washington State Bar Association, which has a lawyer directory. The attorney can then be checked against the EOIR website to see if he or she has been disciplined by the courts. USCIS also has extensive information about hiring a representative and how to avoid notario fraud, as does the American Bar Association.
For people who cannot afford an attorney, there are organizations willing to take cases for low fees or no fees. But, even these organizations must provide either licensed attorneys, accredited representatives or qualifying law students. In Washington, that would be the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project (NWIRP). There are a number of other organizations such as law school clinics, county bar services and other non-profits that are qualified to assist immigrants for low or no fees, most of whom get referrals from NWIRP.
Even advising someone about what forms to file or what information to provide on the form is considered giving legal advice, since every form is signed under penalty of perjury and most questions have legal consequences to the applicant. Therefore, it’s very important for individuals looking for assistance to know exactly who they are hiring and what their authority is to provide legal advice and submit documents to DHS or EOIR. The new stopnotariofraud.org website will be an important new resource for immigrants to become more savvy shoppers for legal advice.