Only lawyers and federally licensed experts could act as immigration consultants under a revived proposal in the California Legislature aimed at curtailing what proponents say is the unlicensed practice of law.
The measure approved by the Assembly and backed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and pushed by the California Bar is aimed at banning so-called “notarios,” consultants offering immigration assistance and translating who aren’t licensed to practice law. The practices of immigration consultants often blur the line between assisting with immigration documents and offering legal advice, which amounts to the illegal practice of law, an Assembly analysis said.
“I can say, 99 percent of the time—more than form filling and translating has occurred,” said Jacqueline Brown Scott, assistant professor and supervising attorney at the University of San Francisco School of Law Immigration & Deportation Defense Clinic.
Legal advice is “at the least insufficient” and “often inaccurate,” she said in an email. “I’ve had several clients for whom it’s been catastrophic.”
Proponents advocate for consumer protection, saying the immigrant community can have citizenship other legal matters mishandled by someone unqualified to deal with the complexities of law.
Others contend that the proposal forecloses an affordable option for a sizable group that needs assistance to legally and safely settle in the U.S.
Assembly Bill 1753, which would take effect in January 2021 if enacted, advanced to the Senate on a 57 to 17 vote May 29. A similar proposal died last year in the state Senate.
Notarios in some Latin countries are licensed and trained practitioners. While using the name “notarios” in the U.S., such practitioners are not lawyers and under the Immigration Consultants Act of 1986 can provide limited services such as document attesting. California has increased prosecuting scams and other states, like Washington and Arizona, have taken steps to rein in their activities.
California is home to 11 million immigrants, the Public Policy Institute of California said. More than half are naturalized U.S. citizens, and another third have some other legal status, including green cards and visas.
Immigration, civil rights, law, and education groups support the proposal as well as county supervisors who’ve noted increasing complaints about notarios offering legal advice as consultants, the Assembly analysis said.
The Catholic Legal Immigration Network, for instance, recommends states limit immigration services to only attorneys and Justice Department-accredited representatives.
Prohibiting non-attorney immigration services other than those allowed by federal law would help strengthen protections for consumers so that they can more easily identify qualified professionals, said the non-profit with a nationwide network of Catholic and community-based organizations.
But the National Notary Association, a portion of which works with immigration consultants, argues that the proposal could impact immigrants negatively.
“If immigration consultants are eliminated, immigrants who need low-cost assistance would be driven to underground providers who are not registered and bonded. Or immigrants would be on their own to complete the forms,” said Kat Garcia, content strategy manager with the National Notary Association.
Enforcement already exists on the state and federal level to protect consumers, Garcia said, adding that states including Georgia, Illinois, Nevada, New York, and Utah regulate nonlegal assistance with immigration forms.