By T. Douglas Stump


Every year, thousands of immigrant families fill in their forms, pay sometimes tens of thousands of dollars in fees, and still face deportation. They’ve tried to make better lives for themselves, tried to enter the U.S. legally, and, in the process, they’ve fallen victim to immigration scams.

On June 9th, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced a multi-agency initiative targeting the unauthorized practice of immigration law (UPIL). The Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Federal Trade Commission will partner with the USCIS to ensure that existing laws are enforced and to educate immigrant communities and advocacy groups on how to distinguish the real immigration attorneys from the frauds.

It isn’t always as easy as you’d think, particularly for immigrants who struggle with English. Many were recently mislead by a website designed to look exactly like the Citizenship and Immigration Services site.  Scammers also take advantage of language and cultural differences. In Mexico and other Latin American countries, “notario publicos,” or notary publics, are lawyers and frequently give legal advice. Consequently, immigrants from these countries are particularly vulnerable to American notary publics (real or fake) who fraudulently offer to handle their legal matters for large fees.

The national initiative, whose message is “The Wrong Help Can Hurt,” will provide brochures, posters, print and radio public service announcements, and a web resource center to help immigrants verify their attorneys’ credentials. The materials will be available in fourteen languages, including Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Urudu.

The program will also ramp up enforcement efforts, giving USCIS access to the FTC’s database of more than 6 million consumer fraud complaints.

Sounds good, but why now? Some speculate that Washington is motivated by a growing legal immigrant population and the fact that immigration may be a major issue in the upcoming election. That may be true. Given the Obama administration’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform, he could do with some positive PR among immigrants and immigration advocates. It may not be enough for this audience, especially if the Justice Department fails to challenge Alabama’s latest abomination. But if the program saves vulnerable immigrants from exploitation, it’s a positive, whatever the administration’s motivations.

“Too good to be true,” political initiatives are as common as “too good to be true,” legal advice. However, if the government’s enforcement efforts and, more importantly, their education efforts are fully funded and supported as they’ve been laid out, this looks to be a step in the right direction.