In California, immigration consultants have an important role in the naturalization process. They can translate answers to questions on state or federal forms, obtain copies of supporting documents and refer their clients to legal representation.
Their services cost thousands of dollars, making an attractive market for scams posing as state-certified consultants. And immigration advocates say it's time to pay more attention to these scams.
That’s why on Wednesday, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced a plan to inform California’s immigrants of the legal responsibilities and obligations of immigration consultants.
An online portal of FAQs is now available to help outline what immigration consultants can and cannot do in the state of California. Through the portal, immigrants can search through a list of the state's 1,016 active immigration consultants and verify if a consultant has properly registered with the California Secretary of State's office.
After ICE officers detained 161 people in an “enforcement surge” in Los Angeles last week, immigrants looking for consulting services flooded Padilla’s office with calls. That's when he decided to launch the new portal. Padilla hopes to help calm the anxiety felt by many in the immigrant community, he told KPCC, adding that immigrants should use the portal to identify potential scams and red flags.
“Many consultants do well by their customers, but unfortunately in situations like this and times like this there is an opportunity for fraud,” he said. “There is an opportunity for people to be victims.”
Common scams include posing as a lawyer when one is not, taking a customer's money without delivering services, keeping a consumer's original documents and charging money to get them back and filing frivolous applications, according to a list on the California Department of Justice website.
Immigration advocates praised Padilla's efforts. At Wednesday's press conference, they told stories of people who lost thousands of dollars or were issued deportation orders after interacting with fraudulent immigration consultants.
"Getting the wrong help can really hurt you," said Angelica Salas, executive director of CHIRLA, an immigrant rights organization. "It can harm your possibilities of being in this country."
Nasim Khansari, a project director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, shared a story of a Korean woman who called her office, claiming to be a victim of a immigration consulting fraud. The woman had given a business a thousand dollars one day, only to come back to an empty office the next.
"It's not something that happens infrequently," Khansari said. "It happens every single day."