Immigrants should always be wary of fraud and scams (as Protima herself found out) as well as non-lawyers, however well-intentioned, who offer legal advice (as Matt previously discussed). To help combat this danger two Republican congressmen have introduced a bill targeting fraud aimed especially at "Notarios" who claim to be able to help immigrants. The proposed law, called Protecting Immigrants from Legal Exploitation Act, would specifically target those individuals who not only exploit immigrants for money but who also may give incorrect and harmful legal advice.
Under this bill, introduced by Representatives Bill Foster and Ted Deutch, individuals convicted of misrepresenting themselves as immigration attorneys could face up to fifteen years in prison and fines and individuals could also face a ten-year prison sentence for fraudulent immigration services. "We must do more to stop these predators who are exploiting immigrants attempting to play by the rules," Representative Foster said.
Notarios are such a problem that the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) has a website specifically dedicated to educating, informing, and trying to stop notario abuse. Often working in immigrant Latino communities (notario is a recognized title in many Spanish-speaking countries), notarios can "destroy the dreams of immigrants" by promising "low-cost, quick results for everything from citizenship to green card renewal, but often do not know immigration law. Even if they actually do the work they promise, such as file green card papers, they may do it incorrectly and cause permanent harm. In fact, many notarios are simply scam artists, taking their 'client’s' trust–and money–without ever delivering results."
US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) also has a warning about fraud relevant during tax season. USCIS urges immigrants to "be careful if a tax preparer offers to also help you prepare and file your immigration forms since these "businesses that prepare tax returns may not be authorized to assist you with immigration services." USCIS reminds immigrants that the only people authorized to give legal advice on immigration are licensed attorneys and representatives accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals. USCIS has helpful information about avoiding legal scams; those who believe they have been a victim of a scam involving a tax preparer should make a report to the Federal Trade Commission.
UPDATE (April 2, 2015): New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announced the creation of a joint task force to combat immigration fraud in advance of the full implementation of President Obama's executive actions on immigration reform. This task force will focus on enforcement resources and a public awareness campaign to stop individuals from taking advantage of immigrants, focusing specifically, much like the proposed law discussed above, on "Notario" fraud and those providing unauthorized and fraudulent immigration services. The mayor said:
‘The president’s immigration reforms will initiate an economic, political and social transformation of our cities and our country, but unfortunately, this progress also brings new opportunities for criminals who prey on the most vulnerable among us...Our joint City-State anti-fraud task force will stop fraudsters in their tracks and provide a safe place for immigrant fraud victims to come forward. While New York is taking bold action, we are also working in collaboration with cities and states across the country to prevent fraud and protect families nationwide.’
The task force creation follows the recently passed New York State's Immigration Assistance Service Enforcement Act, which "establishes protections for immigrants who use the services of individuals or businesses that falsely represent themselves as certified legal advisors for citizenship and other issues." Attorney General Schneiderman, whose office was responsible last year for the establishment of a $2.2 million restitution fund for victims of two large immigration fraud schemes, said: “Together we are sending a powerful message that New York has zero tolerance for anyone who seeks to prey on immigrants and their families[.]”