Senior Obama administration officials today announced a new effort to combat the unauthorized practice of immigration law.
Justice and Homeland Security department officials unveiled the program today in Washington with representatives from the Federal Trade Commission. The initiative has three tiers—outreach, education and enforcement, DOJ officials said.
“This coordinated initiative targets those who prey on immigrant communities by making promises they do not keep and charging for services they are not qualified to provide,” Assistant Attorney General Tony West of the Civil Division said in a prepared statement.
DOJ officials said the government is investigating and prosecuting dozens of cases involving the unauthorized practice of immigration law. Last year, the federal government collected $1.8 million in restitution, not including state and local prosecutions against individuals and businesses involved in legal services scams.
In a recent case, prosecutors in South Florida last month filed charges against a 34-year-old man in West Palm Beach who allegedly misrepresented himself as an immigration attorney. The authorities said the man was in possession of more than 3,000 immigration applications.
West, in his remarks, described one victim's plight, a U.S. citizen whose father needed an immigration lawyer. A man with a business card, a contract and a demand for a $500 fee had stolen the identity of a California attorney, West said. The victim did not know the man was not a lawyer.
"When the day came for Aaron’s father to appear in court, the so-called lawyer was nowhere to be found," West said. "It was only after his father lost his case that Aaron learned the truth about the man who promised to help."
The man, Levy Crespo, is accused of filing false paperwork to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services indicating he was an attorney. Prosecutors allege the man submitted a Florida bar identification card—using another lawyer’s bar number—as part of the scheme. Crespo allegedly attended court hearings under the assumed identity of an attorney who is a member in good standing of the Florida bar.
The new initiative announced today includes a new Immigration Services code on the FTC online consumer complaint database to facilitate public reports about legal services scams. The database of complaints is shared among thousands of law enforcement agents. Officials today unveiled a brochure, poster and public service announcement campaign and a web resource center.
“Through a combination of efforts, including reporting fraud, educating the public and dedicated outreach, we are bolstering our efforts toward growing a force of legitimate legal services providers and getting rid of fraudsters,” Juan Osuna, director of the Executive Office of Immigration Review, said in a statement.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association issued a statement this afternoon in praise of the government initiative. "As the immigration bar association, we are eager to provide pro bono legal services to the immigrants who have been scammed out of money and whose cases have been muddled by faulty practices,” AILA president David Leopold said.