Between January 2016 and September 2018, more than 120 complaints about notaries public and fraudulent lawyers were reported to New York State’s Office for New Americans’ hotline. Fraudulent practices are a growing concern for immigrant communities, particularly with the current administration’s anti-immigrant sentiment and policies driving many to seek legal assistance from attorneys and organizations. This environment has become ripe for immigration fraud, taking advantage of fearful immigrants who are seeking pathways to citizenship.
As a result, an increase in phone scammers claiming to be ICE, IRS, and USCIS have been threatening to arrest and deport immigrants if they don’t pay a sizeable amount of money in the form of gift cards and credit cards. In Yonkers, NY a man who claimed to have federal connections would charge $8,000 to “speed up” processing times for those applying for citizenship.
If you are seeking out legal assistance with your case, it is important to know what kinds of questions to ask and what red flags to look out for to prevent yourself from being scammed by a fraudulent lawyer or organization. CIANA has put together this article to guide those looking for the right immigration attorney to help you through the complex system of immigration in the United States.
The Power is Yours
Before meeting with an immigration attorney, it’s always important to ask questions about how your case stands in the immigration system and every little detail about the process. Possible questions can include:
Spotting Fake Immigration Attorneys and Other Red Flags
If you meet with someone who claims to be an immigration lawyer but does or says the following, find another lawyer:
Most complex immigration applications can take anywhere between 6-18 months or even years, including: family petition applications, asylum applications, citizenship applications, and adjustment of status applications. Most green cards and work authorizations are not obtained quickly and easily. If an immigration attorney says they can get you work authorization quickly, they may have filed an asylum application for you. If that application is rejected, then you could be at risk for deportation. Additionally, if the attorney asks for a large amount of money up front in order to speed up the process, they are most likely stealing your money and will not help your case any further.
Never pay large amounts of cash upfront to an attorney. Always try to pay through certified check or cashier’s check, and if possible, through credit card. You want to ensure that you obtain receipts and have a way to keep track of payments in case the attorney never follows up on your case.
It is important to always have documents that outline the agreement between you and the attorney. A retainer agreement is usually a contract between a client and lawyer that states the services the attorney will perform, potentially an expected timeline, and how the client will be billed and how the client with be making payments. Usually, in order to retain a lawyer, you would be an advanced fee, and then have a schedule of recurring payments depending on how the services will be rendered.
Immigration application fees are NOT paid directly to an attorney. Payments for an immigration application are paid directly to the Department of Homeland Security by mailing in a personal check, cashier’s check, or money order written out directly to the Department of Homeland Security with your application. Additionally, if you are filing an immigration application online, then you can pay for an application via credit card online at USCIS.gov. For some applications, you can pay the fees directly in person at a USCIS field office. For more information on how to pay for an application, go to the USCIS website to learn more about the fees. Application fees always change, so be sure to check and verify what your attorney says by checking the official USCIS fee schedule.
Understandably, many immigrants can come from countries where knowing someone in government can help process an application “faster.” However, this is not practiced in the United States as USCIS officers have policies they must abide by. So, if someone says they “know someone” in government, then they are defrauding you and you will not obtain results you wish to see. Even if the attorney truly did know someone, that still does not mean the application will be expedited. Applications from various states go to different service centers to be processed, and the system is incredibly complicated and complex -- it is not as simple as knowing someone. Be wary of attorneys who claim this.
If an attorney does not tell you how long an application can take, the steps that will be taken, what to expect in terms of outcome, then they are likely a fraudulent attorney and will not follow up with you after an application has been “filed.”
All immigration forms can be accessed FOR FREE on the USCIS website. Do not pay money for a form that you can obtain yourself. It is recommended that you get an immigration lawyer or accredited representative to help you file an application.
Information like bank account numbers, credit card information, is generally not asked for on immigration applications. Usually for proof of income, you would submit copies of your tax returns for applications relating to citizenship, family petition, or adjustment of status, and other immigration benefits. Do not ever give information to someone who asks for your banking information as they might steal your identity to make their own credit cards and such.
If you do retain an attorney, they will submit a form to USCIS along with your immigration application called a G-28. The G-28 informs USCIS that you have special counsel. As a result, both you and the attorney will receive updates on your case from USCIS in the mail. If you never receive anything in the mail after “filing” an application with an attorney, such as biometrics or interview appointments, then the attorney is a fraudulent and did not actually submit your application. A good attorney will let you know when they
You are not given any copies of what was sent into USCIS or you are asked to give originals (passport, birth certificate, social security card, etc.)
A good attorney will not keep original documents and will provide you copies of all the documents and applications submitted to USCIS. Even before sending applications out, an attorney would meet with you to go over the information with you to ensure they are submitting accurate and correct information. It is important that you ask for copies from your attorney so that you know what was submitted and that what was submitted is the truth.
In the United States, a notary republic is a state-committee organization or official that witnesses and verifies your identity and presence when signing a document or form. Usually a designated bank or post office can act as a witness and attest to you being the one who worked on the said documents by providing an official notary stamp and signature that has the date of when you signed the document.
In most Spanish-speaking countries, however, a legal advisor is called a Notario Público. It is NOT the same in as notaries in the United States. Many fraudulent lawyers and organizations will take advantage of this translation and miscommunication among Spanish speakers as a means to extort money from people seeking legal assistance. If someone does call themselves a Notario Público, then be sure to verify their credentials and ask the same kinds of questions listed above in this article.
While the list above is exhaustive, it is always important you ask additional questions and details about your specific situation as well. Do not accept vague answers or be afraid to speak up about any concerns.
Remember, if you have any questions about an application or wish to see with an attorney, you can have a free consultation with our immigration attorney at CIANA by calling (718) 545-4040 to schedule an appointment.
Immigration Advocacy: Avoiding Immigration Fraud
USCIS: Avoiding Common Immigration Scams
NYC Mayor’s Office: Avoid Fraud
CUNY Citizenship: Avoiding Fraudulent Immigration Services