Protect Yourself from Immigration Fraud
Immigration law is complicated, and the wrong advice can have lasting consequences.
Signing forms with false or misleading information can prevent you from obtaining lawful immigration status. If you apply for a work permit, permanent residence (a “green card”) or another immigration benefit and do not qualify, the Department of Homeland Security may begin removal proceedings that could result in deportation.
Only licensed attorneys and federally accredited representatives are authorized to advise and represent you in immigration matters.
Never hire anyone who:
- Asks you to sign blank forms
- Tells you to lie or provide false information on an application
- Refuses to provide you a written contract
- Says they have special connections with Immigration officials
- Keeps your original documents
Getting the Right Help
- Who can help me with my immigration case?
- What does it mean to give legal advice?
- What is an accredited representative?
- What is an "immigration consultant"?
- Why would I hire an Immigration Consultant if their services are so limited?
- What is a notario público?
- What is the difference between an immigration consultant and a "notario público"?
- How do I know if an attorney is licensed?
- How do I find an attorney?
Who can help me with my immigration case?
If you need immigration help, it is important that you receive advice and services only from a licensed attorney or federally accredited representative. The Office of Immigrant Affairs recommends that you avoid immigration consultants, notaries, and tax preparers for all immigration matters. Only licensed attorneys and federally accredited representatives are authorized to provide you legal advice and represent you in immigration matters. The California Department of Social Services funds various nonprofit organizations in the Los Angeles area to provide free immigration legal services to low-income individuals.
What does it mean to give legal advice?
Legal advice includes answering questions about:
- Your eligibility for an immigration benefit
- How to answer a question on an immigration form
- Which form you should select
- What kind of evidence you should include (or exclude) with your application
- Your chances of success
- The risks of applying (or not applying)
Answering those questions requires legal advice and judgment. Immigration consultants, “notarios” and tax preparers violate California law by answering those questions because they are not authorized to give legal advice.
What is an accredited representative?
An accredited representative is a non-attorney who has demonstrated to the U.S. Department of Justice that they have enough education and experience in immigration law to provide immigration legal services. Accredited representatives can only charge nominal fees for their services. Accredited representatives must work for a nonprofit organization that has received recognition from the Department of Justice. An accredited representative is not allowed to open their own private business that charges fees for immigration services. Once they leave the recognized nonprofit organization, they lose their accreditation.
Accredited representatives can represent immigrants in asylum, adjustment of status and other matters before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). If they obtain enough training and experience, accredited representatives may even represent immigrants in immigration court and before the Board of Immigration Appeals. The Office of Legal Access Programs in the Department of Justice regularly updates a complete list of accredited representatives.
What is an “immigration consultant”?
Immigration consultants in California may charge fees for very basic, non-legal immigration services if they comply with state registration and other requirements. Immigration consultants are not legal professionals. Because the services they may provide are so limited, immigration consultants are not required to undergo any training. In fact, immigration consultants are not even required to prove that they speak, read and write in English.
Legal advice includes answering questions about:
- Translating documents
- Assisting you in securing documents that you decide to include with your case (the immigration consultant cannot advise you on which documents to include), such as a birth certificate
- Filling out immigration forms that you choose, without instructing you how to answer questions on those forms
- Refer you to an attorney (the consultant cannot charge you a fee for a referral)
To provide the very limited services described above, immigration consultants in California are required to:
- Show you proof they have filed a $100,000 bond with the California Secretary of State before they offer you service. Bond verification is available through the Secretary of State’s website.
- Display visible signs in their office that state the immigration consultant’s name, bond number, the services they provide and a list of fees. They must also have a sign that states they are not an attorney.
- Provide you a written contract in English and your native language that includes, among other requirements, the services that the immigration consultant will provide and the cost of each service. This written contract must provide you the right to cancel the agreement within 72 hours and receive a full refund of any fees paid to the consultant.
- Give you a receipt that is typed or printed from a computer and includes the amount paid, date of payment, services provided, and the immigration consultant’s signature.
Immigration consultants are not allowed to:
- Select immigration forms for you.
- Answer questions such as:
- your eligibility for an immigration benefit,
- how to answer a question on the immigration form, what evidence you should include, your chances of success, or your risks of applying.
- Keep your original documents.
- Charge you upfront for services to be provided later.
- Guarantee or promise a result or outcome.
- Represent you at any interview with U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) or in immigration court.
Why would I hire an immigration consultant if their services are so limited?
Some people believe that immigration consultants provide a lower cost alternative to attorneys. Sadly, some consultants take advantage of this mindset and charge thousands of dollars for services they are not allowed to provide. Even well-intended individuals can do permanent harm by giving the wrong advice. Immigrants often end up paying more money later to clean up mistakes – if they can be fixed at all. That is why the OIA recommends that consumers only seek immigration help from a licensed attorney or an accredited representative.
What is a “notario público”?
In some foreign countries, a “notario” has the authority to provide legal advice and services. In the United States, a notary public is a witness to official signatures. Becoming a notary public in California is a very simple process that requires only a one-hour exam. Exam prep courses generally last just a few hours in a single session. There is absolutely no immigration training or expertise required to become a notary public. They cannot practice law or provide legal advice related to immigration. Persons who advertise as a “notario público” and provide immigration services often seek to take advantage of immigrants who believe that notaries in the U.S. are legal professionals.
What is the difference between an immigration consultant and a “notario público”?
California law regulates all non- attorneys who provide immigration services. Unless an individual complies with California’s rules, they are prohibited from providing any immigration services for a fee. This includes tax preparers, “notarios”, and other non- attorneys who provide immigration services (federally accredited representatives are the only exception). But complying with the California rules does not mean that immigration consultants are immigration experts. Immigration consultants are still prohibited from giving legal advice, which includes answering the basic questions described above.
How do I know if an attorney is licensed?
If an attorney claims to be licensed in California, you may ask to see their license and/or check the State Bar website. Because immigration law is federal, attorneys who licensed in other states are allowed to practice in California. However, California law requires that out of state attorneys indicate their state bar admission on their business cards and advertisements. If you have trouble verifying if an attorney is licensed in another state, you may contact the Office of Immigration Affairs for assistance.
How do I find an attorney?
The California State Bar authorizes private attorney referral services that can help connect you to licensed attorneys in immigration and other areas. This includes the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s referral service (SmartLaw). Nonprofit organizations that provide immigration services may also be able to refer you to reputable immigration attorneys if they cannot accept your case. Immigration is complicated and hiring an attorney who specializes in immigration law can be important. If you have doubts about the attorney or the advice you receive, get a second (or third) opinion before hiring them and filing an application.