City Braces for Fight against Immigration Fraud Surge

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, with Council members Daniel Dromm and Carlos Menchaca and New York Immigration Coalition Director Stephen Choi call on the city to pass legislation and protect immigrants from fraudulent services. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (center), with Council members Daniel Dromm (behind the speaker) and Carlos Menchaca (left) and New York Immigration Coalition Director Stephen Choi (right) call on the city to pass legislation and protect immigrants from fraudulent services. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

As the saying goes, “fishermen make their day in troubled waters.” That is what pro-immigrant advocates fear will happen with fake lawyers and unscrupulous notaries public who may try to take advantage of the fear that Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election has generated among undocumented people. For that reason, a bill was introduced at the City Council to combat immigration fraud.

Activists and elected officials in the Big Apple made this known minutes before the first public hearing to evaluate the Int. No. 746 initiative, with which the Council is seeking to reaffirm its commitment to defend immigrants against the proposals promoted by the president-elect during his campaign.

“In the midst of situations such as the one we find ourselves in at this moment, people come out to take advantage of our friends, neighbors and vulnerable immigrants to make a profit and deceive them, and that’s why we are going to start hearing this project,” said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who warned that New York and its authorities will not tolerate abuses from lawyers or notaries public or even from Trump’s own government.

“We will continue to be a sanctuary city and to demonstrate that the vast majority of immigrants contribute to this city and community,” she said.

The bill, which will apply penalties of up to $10,000 to immigration assistance services providers each time they violate the law, warns immigrants that, in New York, notaries public do not carry the legal weight they may have in some Latin American countries and that they are not authorized to offer consultation services in immigration cases.

“A couple of notaries public who promised me heaven and earth stole at least $20,000 from me, and the worst part was not that they didn’t do my paperwork but that one of them got me into even deeper trouble with immigration because of some forms he sent that were full of errors and lies,” said Raúl Gómez, from Colombia, who was affected by the scammers.

Jackson Heights Council member Daniel Dromm, a sponsor of the initiative, said that people seeking legal services must make sure that they are talking to a serious attorney before handing sums of money that may empty their pockets through a case of mishandling which may put the future of their immigration status in jeopardy – or even lead them to deportation.

Dromm pointed out that the city has a number of free legal counseling programs that immigrants may use in a safe manner.

“Sadly, immigrant New Yorkers often fall victim to unscrupulous and unqualified ‘immigration assistance service providers’ who fail to provide any meaningful services,” said the council member, adding that many will make more relentless attempts to attract customers now that there is fear and uncertainty among the community.

Dromm pointed out that, because New York is a city of 3.1 million immigrants – who comprise 37 percent of the population and 46 percent of the labor force – it is urgent to protect them from people who might play into their fears and dreams.

Steven Choi, director of the New York Immigration Coalition, acknowledged that there is a climate of great fear in New York after Trump’s victory which could allow scammers to get money out of undocumented people through false promises.

“Immigrants in New York are terrified. They are worried because they do not know when their family members will be deported or when DACA is going to disappear, and there are people trying to take advantage of these fears, so this is the first step to halt these people and some notaries public,” said Choi.

At the hearing to evaluate the initiative, which was discussed in a joint meeting of the Immigration and Consumer Affairs committees, Council member Rafael Espinal warned: “No immigrant should be defrauded by immigration services providers or by any entity seeking to take advantage of vulnerable people, which is why we must do everything we can to reject intolerance and abuse.”

Details of the law:

  • People holding notary public titles may not select or advise customers on choosing immigration forms.
  • These people may not offer legal counseling or advice on immigration to their customers.
  • They may not charge a fee for legal counseling referrals.
  • Immigration assistance services providers may not offer guarantees of government benefits to their customers regarding favorable decisions in their cases.
  • They may not provide false or misleading information.
  • Immigration assistance services providers may not present information to the authorities without having their customer’s full knowledge and consent in writing.
  • A written agreement or contract between the customer and the lawyer detailing the services to be provided will be required.
  • A new “Cancellation Form” will allow customers to cancel the lawyer’s services.
  • Civil penalties for violations of local laws will increase for immigration assistance services providers, ranging from $500 and $5,000 for the first offense and from $1,000 and $10,000 for subsequent incidents.
  • A minimum compensation estimated at $2,500 will be awarded to affected customers bringing a civil lawsuit.
  • Every six months for four years, the Department of Consumer Affairs will be required to provide a report to the mayor and the City Council speaker specifying the number of complaints brought against each immigration assistance services provider.

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