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Monday, June 14, 2004

NY Lawyers' Reaction to Regulating Immigration Consultants Mixed

NY Lawyers' Reaction to Regulating Immigration Consultants Mixed

NY Lawyers' Reaction to Regulating Immigration Consultants Mixed


New York Lawyer
June 10, 2004

By Anthony Lin
New York Law Journal

The New York State Senate yesterday unanimously passed a bill that would require non-lawyer immigration consultants to post signs stating that they are not lawyers and are not authorized to practice law.

Legislators and immigrant advocacy groups have hailed the measure as introducing new protections for a vulnerable community.

But a number of immigration lawyer groups said they would urge Governor George E. Pataki to reject the bill. They say it would make it easier for incompetent or dishonest immigration consultants to victimize immigrants.

There is broad agreement among the bill's supporters and critics that many such consultants, usually called notarios in Spanish-speaking communities, are a menace to immigrants.

Taking advantage of the fact that the word "notario" frequently denotes a lawyer or even a judicial officer in Latin American countries, consultants with minimal education often hold themselves out as distinguished lawyers. They sometimes charge exorbitant fees and offer false promises about their ability to obtain residency, work authorization or citizenship, the critics say.

Their shops are a common presence in neighborhoods with large numbers of immigrants throughout the state. They are heavily concentrated in Queens and parts of Nassau and Westchester counties.

Aside from requiring immigration consultants to post signs stating they are not lawyers and cannot give legal advice, the state bill, sponsored by Republican Senator Frank Padavan, would require consultants to give clients written contracts delineating services provided and fees charged. Consultants would be required to maintain a $50,000 surety bond. Violations would be considered Class A misdemeanors, carrying a maximum fine of $7,500.

"I'm hopeful Governor Pataki will sign this bill into law, so that we can get a handle on what in certain areas of the state, my district included, is becoming a bigger problem with the proliferation of these types of businesses," Mr. Padavan said in a statement issued yesterday. "Immigration assistance service businesses are widespread and they aren't going to be stopped by not regulating or ignoring them."

Mr. Pataki has not announced his position on the bill, though he has shown interest in the issue. In April, the governor announced an educational initiative aimed at raising awareness among immigrants of the dangers posed by dishonest consultants.

The bill was passed by the State Assembly last year. It has had the strong support of the New York Immigration Coalition, the city's largest advocacy group for immigrants. Dan Smulian, the director of training and legal services for the coalition, said the need for immigrant services justifies recognizing some role for immigration consultants.

"This regulates and puts brakes on some of the practices that are of most concern and gives government civil and criminal penalties against people who hold themselves out to be lawyers," Mr. Smulian said.

Regulation Opposed

But the New York County Lawyers Association, the American Immigration Lawyers Association and other lawyer groups are fiercely opposed to the bill. In their view, regulating immigration consultants would also legitimize them, rendering immigrants even more vulnerable to practitioners of questionable motivation and competence.

"The state bill offers no protection to immigrants," said Eugene Glicksman, chairman of the County Lawyers immigration and nationality committee. "Anybody can open up a storefront operation and put up a sign saying we're not lawyers. It requires no education, no background."

Critics say the bill reflects a misguided perception that filling out forms on behalf of immigrants does not constitute the practice of law.

The Association of the Bar of the City of New York has not taken a position on the bill. Claudia Slovinsky, who chairs its immigration committee, said she was personally opposed to it.

"There's no such thing as just filling out a form," she said. "That form is the tip of a big, huge iceberg."

Mr. Glicksman said the mistakes that immigration consultants make on their clients' forms have often resulted in serious problems that lawyers had to correct. In the worst cases, he said, immigration consultants could put their clients on a path to deportation.

Deborah Notkin, vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and an outspoken critic of the state bill, agreed. She said the stakes are much higher now that immigration authorities are heavily focused on security issues. Forms that require immigrants to describe past crimes receive greater scrutiny now, she said, and require legal advice on how they should be answered.

"Even some consultants who are well-meaning are screwing them up," she said.

Other Problems

Notarios do not raise the only client-service issues in immigration law. Over the years, a number of lawyers have been disciplined for defrauding immigration clients.

The law firm of Wilens and Baker, which asks immigrants to call 1-800-IMMIGRATION in advertisements in New York subways, was recently publicly censured by the Appellate Division, First Department, for treating immigration clients in a rude, neglectful and demeaning manner.

Mr. Glicksman said the censure of Wilens and Baker and the other cases brought against immigration lawyers occur in a legal system that polices lawyers' conduct. The immigration consultant legislation, he said, will provide no comparable system.

"At least with lawyers, there's recourse," he said.

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