Boston – The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has launched a multi-agency initiative to combat immigration scammers who prey on victims needing legal assistance.
Agency officials met with community leaders, policymakers and immigrant rights advocates here on Monday to explain the program, which will focus on education, enforcement and coordination between other federal agencies.
The initiative, first launched in seven pilot cities across the country in January 2010, uses a three-pronged approach to eradicate what is known as the unauthorized practice of immigration law, or UPIL. This refers to the offer of legal advice or representation related to immigration matters by someone who is not an attorney or accredited representative.
Immigration scammers can range from a notary public – in Spanish, they are known as notarios – to actual lawyers who simply take advantage of immigrants.
“This is a serious national problem that preys on those who live in the shadows,” said Denis Riordan, USCIS Director for District 1.
USCIS will be joined by by the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, officials said. The effort is now being launched in 11 other cities, including Boston, and will expand to 26 district offices across the country.
One example of a case of notario fraud, as it is called, is that of a Portuguese man who defrauded more than 300 people by charging up to $2,100 for services such as obtaining social security cards and green cards, said Bruce Foucart, Special Agent in Charge for ICE’s Boston office.
Foucart added that scammers like the Portuguese man – who is a fugitive – can only be caught if people report them to the authorities.
“The people who report these crimes are not a priority for removal from the United States,” Foucart said, referring to victims of scams who may not want to come forward because they are undocumented.
Latinos in particular could be at risk of falling prey to these con artists because of the use of the term "notario."
“In Latin America it means a lawyer, but in the U.S. a notary public has no right to practice law,” said Monica Vaca, assistant director of the division of marketing practices for the Federal Trade Commission, who spoke at the meeting. “They used that confusion to capitalize on people’s trust of lawyers.”
The FTC has a consumer complaint database at www. ftc.gov, where people who think they have been scammed can file a complaint, Vaca said. There are also materials in Spanish on the website.
Vilma L. Galvez, program director of the ALPHA Immigrant Center in Boston, said that 25 percent of the complaints she gets from her Latino clients are related to immigration scams. Her program services 6,000 people annually and 60 percent of them are Latinos.
“There are a lot of complaints about real lawyers who don’t give people the right information,” Gálvez said in Spanish.
These lawyers tend to publicize their services frequently via radio or newspaper and claim they can win any case, Gálvez said. They can sometimes charge up to $10,000 for services and usually ask for all or most of the money upfront.
Unscrupulous lawyers are a reality that is not lost on groups like the American Immigration Lawyer’s Association.
Leslie Tuttle DiTrani, the chair of the New England chapter, said at the meeting that the best way to determine a lawyer’s background is to check references and referrals, ask how much they charge right away, and make sure they are registered with their state licensing organization.
“We take that problem very seriously,” she said. “If someone gets scammed, they should most definitely complain.”
Government officials and community leaders say the initiative is coming at a time when there is a lot of momentum – and stakeholders want to make every effort to put an end to the crimes.
“I think this is an effective approach because it’s a partnership that includes government agencies and community-based organizations,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, or MIRA.
MIRA and other community-based organizations will help educate immigrant communities by disseminating materials in several languages granted to them by USCIS at no cost.
“It’s beneficial to all of us,” she said.
Tanya Pérez-Brennan is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.