If you're looking for help with an immigration problem and want to hire an immigration consultant rather than an attorney, it's important to understand what an immigration consultant can and cannot do for you.
Immigration consultants are people who can help consumers fill out paperwork and translate and submit forms to government agencies. In California, immigration consultants cannot give anyone legal advice and cannot represent you in Immigration Court. Attorneys or accredited representatives must be registered with the Executive Office of Immigration Review before appearing in Immigration Court.
However, in some Latino communities, immigration consultants often advertise their services as “notarios públicos,” which means “notaries public” in English. Consumers can be confused by this title because in some countries, “notarios” have training similar to lawyers and can perform legal services.
In California, however, notaries public are not lawyers. In some communities, “notarios” take advantage of this confusion to demand fees for services they are not legally allowed to offer, defrauding consumers of large amounts of money in the process. That is why, under a new law, immigration consultants can no longer use the term "notario" to advertise their services.
If you want to hire an immigration consultant, here are a few tips to avoid fraud:
Get references. Don’t hire an immigration consultant based only on an advertisement, a phonebook listing or a friend’s recommendation. Check with community groups or attorneys who specialize in immigration law to find the name of a reputable immigration consultant. If your references report that people have lost money or paid the immigration consultant without ever hearing back, find another immigration consultant.
Check out the immigration consultant’s background. Once you have a name of an immigration consultant, you can easily check to see if they are registered in California. Immigration consultants are required by law to register and file a $100,000 bond with the Secretary of State. Anyone can check on an immigration consultant’s bond online at http://www.sos.ca.gov/business/sf/bond_search/ or call 916-653-3984. If you can’t find the consultant’s bond, the consultant may not be reputable.
Ask questions. Make sure the immigration consultant can actually provide the services promised. Some consultants say they can handle certain immigration problems, such as filing a request for asylum. But an immigration consultant can only perform limited services, such as translate your documents for you, help you complete forms and even submit them to the federal agency.
Be wary if they charge you for forms or require you to pay before they do the work they promised. For example, you can download most U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services forms (USCIS) for free. Immigration consultants can deceive you by charging you extra fees saying that they know someone at the USCIS who can quickly process your documents.
Never sign blank documents or forms that have false information. If an immigration consultant asks you to do this, ask for your paperwork back and find another immigration consultant.
Get a contract. If you decide to hire an immigration consultant, have a written contract. The contract should list what the consultant will do, the fees you expect to pay and other costs. It should be in English and in your native language. If you change your mind within 72 hours, you can cancel the contract and get all your money back. You can also cancel your contract at any time after the initial 72 hours. Make sure you cancel the contract in writing.
Keep your original documents and make copies of documents you submit to the immigration consultant. This includes receipts, contracts, government forms, statements and financial records.
Make a complaint. Don’t be afraid to complain — law enforcement officials will investigate your complaint regardless of your immigration status. If you run into a problem with an immigration consultant, you can take it to the California Office of the Attorney General by calling or filling out an online complaint form:
California Department of Justice
Office of Immigrant Assistance
You can also file a complaint with your local district attorney’s office.
For more information on scams targeting immigrants and their families, read a consumer alert issued by California Attorney General Kamala Harris.