New York Times (New York)
By Kirk Simple
December 12, 2014
In the fight against the schemers and unethical lawyers trying to defraud unsuspecting immigrants, one of the many front lines is in a room above the nave of the Bronx Spanish Evangelical Church.
One night recently, more than 60 people, most of them immigrants, gathered there for a briefing about President Obama’s recently announced plans to offer millions of undocumented immigrants a reprieve from deportation. But before plunging into the basic elements of the initiatives, the event’s organizers issued an emphatic warning about immigration fraud.
“If someone invites you to their apartment to fill out papers, don’t do it,” Angela Fernandez, executive director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, told the congregation. “If they tell you to pay in cash, don’t do it.”
Immigration fraud has been an enduring scourge of the immigrant population. But immigrant service providers and government officials expect that the rollout of Mr. Obama’s sweeping executive actions will inspire a significant rise in it across the country, and they are moving quickly to forestall it.
Immigrants “have to arm themselves and prepare themselves against the con artists that are going to come out of the woodwork,” said Maritza Mejia Ming, director of the immigrant fraud unit of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.
President Obama’s executive actions, which could temporarily shield as many as five million people from deportation and grant many of them work permits, are not scheduled to be put into effect until next year, with the most far-reaching program beginning in May.
Still, immigrants’ advocates say they have already begun hearing about shady lawyers and others promising to accelerate the application process — in exchange for a payment of thousands of dollars.
“Many immigrants believe that something is already available and that they must begin to sign up,” said Valeria Treves, executive director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment, a group based in Queens.
While immigration schemes and shoddy lawyering can sometimes cost victims their life savings, poorly handled cases can also destroy all chances of getting immigration benefits, and may lead to deportation.
“The real problem is that immigration law is so complex and so punitive that if you get it wrong, your path to relief may be closed forever,” said Reid Trautz, director of practice and professionalism at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Government officials and advocates said they planned to expand existing antifraud campaigns in the coming weeks and months, including educational events like the one held this week at the Bronx Spanish Evangelical Church. New York City officials, for example, said their efforts would include social media and mass transit advertisement campaigns.
Nisha Agarwal, commissioner of immigrant affairs for the city, called this “a huge priority for us” and said her office was working closely with immigrant advocates as well as city, state and federal officials “to create an effective and unified strategy to combat the issue.”
Ms. Agarwal’s office is also part of an antifraud task force, formed last year, that includes representatives from the city’s district attorneys’ offices and the state attorney general’s office, federal immigration officials, immigrants’ advocates and service providers.
In an emergency conference call this week, members of the task force discussed how to respond to Mr. Obama’s initiatives and “stay ahead” of schemes, especially given the gap between the announcement last month and the beginning of the president’s plan next year, said Camille J. Mackler, director of legal initiatives for the New York Immigration Coalition, which coordinates the task force.
Some frauds are perpetrated by the operators of so-called multiservice businesses, operating out of shop fronts in immigrant neighborhoods like Elmhurst and Flushing, in Queens, and offering help with accounting, money transfers, translation, shipping and other needs.
Among Latinos, these entrepreneurs are often known as “notarios,” from the Spanish “notario public,” meaning public notary. But while notarios can perform legal functions in many Latin American countries, they have no authority to act as lawyers in the United States: By law, only lawyers or representatives accredited by the Justice Department can represent people before immigration authorities, and anyone providing immigration services must also comply with strict rules governing contracts and advertising.
In New York State, the penalties for immigration fraud are about to get tougher. A new law, which will go into effect in February, mandates stricter requirements for immigration assistance providers and increases penalties to discourage fraud, including creating two new crime categories, felony and misdemeanor immigration assistance fraud.
Advocates are now pressing the New York City Council to consider similar city legislation. Advocates say that the addition of another layer of legislation would further help city agencies to curb fraud.
The Council is also studying the possibility of holding hearings to ensure that the Department of Consumer Affairs is fully prepared to enforce existing city laws against immigration fraud, Mr. Koch said.
Advocates are also urging the district attorney’s office in Queens to form a special immigration crimes unit, much like the Manhattan district attorney’s office has had for several years and the Brooklyn district attorney formed this year.
Immigrants’ service providers and advocates, with the help of private foundations, bar associations and government, are also trying to expand the availability of inexpensive, qualified legal help. “There’s just not enough to meet the need of the incredibly high number of people who are going to need services,” said Ms. Mackler of the New York Immigration Coalition. “People are going to end up turning to notarios because they won’t have any other option.”
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com
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