On Friday the United States Citizen and Immigration Services announced that it was beginning a new campaign against individuals falsely purporting to be an attorney qualified to provide immigration services. The initiative includes efforts to increase enforcement of UPL laws, educate the public about how to avoid scams when selecting legal counsel, and increase the number of organizations approved by the Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) to provide immigration aid in underserved areas.
Immigration scams are a real problem that harms consumers. It is commendable the USCIS is working to address this issue, and realizes that part of the solution must be informing the public and providing reasonably priced services above board. However, the problems highlighted by USCIS are far from unique to immigration, and solutions are just as urgently needed in other areas of law.
For instance much of the public does not know how to make smart choices about who to hire as their lawyer in any civil matter. We simply don’t give consumers the information they need to make informed decisions when choosing a lawyer. While consumers have numerous resources to use in choosing a plumber or drycleaner, these options are largely absent when choosing a lawyer. Responsive Law’s Client’s Bill of Rights provides consumers with a set of guidelines for choosing a lawyer and negotiating an agreement with them. This type of information is needed in all areas of law, not just immigration.
Additionally, it is important that in its zeal to prevent non-lawyer scammers, USCIS neither ignores unethical lawyers nor prevent legitimate non-lawyer assistance with immigration matters. There are numerous instances of actual attorneys who have claimed to be assisting immigrants only to take their money and do no work while their client is deported. Such lawyers make it tougher for immigrants to be able to trust the vast majority of immigration lawyers who behave ethically. At the same time, many immigrants either do not need or cannot afford full legal representation but may just need help completing forms or need to be directed to self-help resources. In using restrictions on the unauthorized practice of law to prevent scammers pretending to be lawyers, it is important that USCIS not prevent immigrants from receiving legitimate help from people who make no claim to being lawyers. By casting too wide a net, USCIS may end up wasting resources on prosecuting people who are providing a valuable service along with the bad actors who deserve to be targeted.