9/19/2014

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New bill combats immigration fraud

New bill combats immigration fraud
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OLYMPIA (AP) - In 2003, 150 immigrants were deported after following poor legal advice from a Wenatchee woman who advertised herself as a lawyer. In 2009, the state attorney general's office issued 11 civil investigative demands to people suspected of unlawfully providing immigration legal services. In 2010, three immigration assistants agreed to pay thousands of dollars in damages sustained by consumers who followed their bad advice.

This year, lawmakers have introduced legislation that would protect immigrants from falling victim to similar crimes.

High demand for affordable legal immigration advice, coupled with a lack of disciplinary oversight, have allowed for the proliferation of unauthorized legal services for immigrants - sometimes resulting in deportation for those seeking a legal path to residency, according to Attorney General Rob McKenna.

McKenna is working with lawmakers to target loopholes in current law that allow these legally questionable services performed by some immigration assistants - known as "notarios" in Spanish - to exist.

It's an issue that may fly under the radar outside the Latino immigrant community, but it's one that's known to anyone trying to navigate the cumbersome laws of the immigration system.

"A lot of people who apply for immigration benefits with an attorney have a lawful claim," said Assistant Attorney General Pedro Bernal "However, if you don't follow the correct steps, or provide the correct information, you can be deported."

Opponents of the bills argue that the measure will limit the availability of affordable legal counsel for immigrants seeking citizenship benefits.

Current law allows "immigration assistants" to translate immigration forms for immigrants qualified for citizenship.

But McKenna says ill-intentioned immigration assistants take advantage of a translation quirk that confuses "notarios" - a Spanish word that translates to "lawyers" - with "notary publics" who are only authorized to verify signatures. Often, immigration assistants give misguided advice that wind up getting their clients deported.

"They're practicing law without a license. It's a crime; not only a civil violation, but a crime," Bernal said. "There is a need in the community for it, but they are not qualified to provide it."

To protect consumers from notario fraud, the measure would eliminate the term "immigration assistant" from the existing Immigration Assistant Practices Act and further clarify the scope of "unauthorized practice of law" to come in line with federal statutes.

It also requires anyone giving immigration advice to be a licensed attorney in the state of Washington, or to comply with federal requirements for providing legal services - a law student working under a licensed attorney's supervision, for example.

The bill establishes harsher penalties on violators: Parties injured by violations could bring a civil action to recover either $1,000 or the actual damages caused by the violation, whichever is greater.

Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney, D-Seattle, sponsored the House bill in hopes that it would keep people from paying large fees for immigration services that are never provided or incorrectly carried out.

"(Notarios) are not attorneys," she said. "The immigration assistant's failure to select the right forms . really ruins the client's chances of obtaining anything."

The attorney general's office requested the bill following several cases in which immigrants were deported - like the instance in 2003 - after paying and relying on a notario to submit the proper paperwork.

But immigration assistant Raymundo Olivas says the state should educate the public rather than just outlaw immigration assistants completely.

"Instead of eliminating (the immigration assistant position) completely, to make assistance so that . the client can go to someplace economically accessible instead of having no choice but going to an attorney," said Raymundo Olivas, founder of MultiServicios in Seattle.

His company provides basic immigration assistant services and refers clients to immigration attorneys. While Olivas acknowledged the unfairness of notarios taking advantage of immigrants, he considers lawyers' steep fees to be unjust, as well.

"It's like having only doctors - it's like having no nurses at all," he said. "There are a lot of competent individuals . that do not abuse the system, that work with the system."

Bernal, who helped write the proposal, said a common misperception is that the bill was introduced to help illegal immigrants.

"It's there to help the people who are here legally, who may qualify for a benefit - people who have a legitimate claim and are merely trying to execute it," Bernal explained. "However, if you don't follow the correct steps, or provide the correct information, you can be deported."

Fifteen other states already have anti-notarios laws on the books, and six states are currently working on similar legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, worked closely with the Attorney General's office to craft the bill. Members of his office are currently trying to amend the bill's language to more clearly include paralegals or people working under licensed attorneys among those qualified to give immigration advice.

The cost of legal representation is an unfortunate but unavoidable reality, Baron said, due to the lack of practitioners in the area.

"The challenge is that it is a very complicated area of law, so it does require a lot of training and time, and that translates into the fact that the services are expensive," he said.

As an organization that offers legal aid to those who can't afford private representation, Baron said, the NWIRP is entirely supportive of more licensed attorneys providing pro bono assistance and working in legal clinics.

"There certainly is a justice gap and we acknowledge that," he said.

Kenney's notario bill is House Bill 1146; the Senate equivalent, introduced by Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, is Senate Bill 1053.

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