The man said he had buenas noticias. Good news.
Ines, a 36-year-old Mexican migrant worker in Plant City, had come to a Tampa hotel to talk to a lawyer about getting legal status. Other attorneys had said she had no path to citizenship, but this man, who said he worked for a Miami lawyer, told her she could gain legal status and then petition the government for her husband, too. The couple handed over $4,000 in cash, money they had saved from working in the strawberry fields.
But the man was wrong. Because Ines was married, the mother of two didn't qualify for the type of visa she was advised she could get.
"I felt sad," said Ines, who asked the Tampa Bay Times not to publish her last name because she is in the country illegally. She said families need to be sure they talk to an actual lawyer "so something like this doesn't happen to them."
Immigration attorneys in the Tampa Bay area say they are seeing a spike in the number of clients coming to them for help after paying thousands in fees to immigration consultants who fail to deliver. A similar uptick is happening throughout the country, according to one national advocacy group.
Shoddy or fraudulent immigration services provided by unlicensed consultants, who often advertise as "notarios," is a decades-old problem. But attorneys and advocates suspect President Donald Trump's tough talk on immigration has sparked a sense of fear that is driving more people to shady or unqualified consultants. The stakes are high because bad advice can lead to deportation orders and ruin whatever chance an immigrant had at obtaining legal status.
"I think the biggest problem is when the immigrants keep going for a second and third and fourth opinion," said Diana Castro, an attorney and immigration counselor for the Redlands Christian Migrant Association who had to break the news to Ines that she'd been misinformed. "Whoever tells them what they want to hear, whoever sells them hope, that's when they stop looking and pay."
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When it comes to immigration services, state and federal laws place strict limits on providers who aren't trained in law.
They can translate documents and describe in general terms government programs that could earn an immigrant legal status, such as Deferred Action for Child Arrival, or DACA, said Jacquelyn Needelman, Florida Bar Association lawyer in its Unlicensed Practice of Law Department.
"The customer is supposed to be filling out the form and the non-lawyer is like a secretary or typing service, but a lot of times the non-lawyer goes much further by recommending the relief they should be seeking for their specific problem," Needelman said.
One factor is a matter of translation. In Latin American countries, the term "notario público" refers to a highly trained legal professional similar to an attorney. In the United States, a notary public can perform limited legal duties such as certifying contracts and other documents.
Florida law tries to address this by forbidding a literal translation of "notary public" in an advertisement. A notary public who advertises services in another language must include a disclaimer that states the provider is not an attorney licensed to practice law in Florida and cannot give legal advice.
In some cases, the service providers are people in the community who truly believe they're helping save their client from costly legal fees, which average about $5,000 for a typical immigration case. But they lack the legal expertise and can't appear in court.
Castro, the RCMA attorney, said word is spreading in east Hillsborough about a couple in Bonita Springs who charge about $500 to submit paperwork to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The couple typically files applications for asylum, which usually result in clients receiving a work permit while they wait for an interview with immigration officials to make their case for asylum. With the current backlog, that can take years.
Meanwhile, the clients believe their immigration status is arreglado, or "fixed," though they often don't know or understand what has been filed on their behalf, Castro said. Asylum cases are difficult to make, and if applicants don't show up for the asylum interview, a judge will enter a deportation order.
Local attorneys say they are seeing more business models like the one that snared Ines. Firms advertising on Spanish-language television invite would-be clients to local hotel conference rooms for consultations. Representatives who say they work for attorneys offer advice on the case, and the client signs a retainer agreement and hands over thousands of dollars in up-front fees. The clients are often told they're eligible for programs that won't help them and in some cases are given advice that contradicts basic tenets of immigration law.
"These money retainers are written for petitions that are never going to be successful," said Clearwater immigration attorney Kathlyn Mackovjak. "Once people engage with these firms they can't seem to get ahold of information about their case. That's typically when they come to us."
In Ines' case, Castro called the firm, hoping to speak to the attorney. She never got a response, but a representative called Ines later to say a mistake had been made in her case and she would receive a refund.
Yahima Hernandez, a Riverview immigration attorney, said a man came to her after meeting with a case manager in a Tampa hotel and paying a $4,000 retainer fee. Hernandez said the man was told he could apply for legal status under DACA, but he entered the country after he was 16, which disqualifies him.
"He said, 'They were advertising on the television and radio so I assumed they were legit,' " Hernandez said. "I told him, you need to report this because it hurts other people."
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Victims of immigration fraud or misfeasance can go to local law enforcement and file a complaint with the Florida Bar, which investigates the unlicensed practice of law. If the Bar finds evidence to support the allegation, it can seek a civil injunction from the Florida Supreme Court. The Bar also refers cases to law enforcement.
Victim testimony is usually critical to make a case.
"A problem we have is oftentimes undocumented people don't want to come forward," said Needelman of the Florida Bar.
That may be why the Bar and local law enforcement agencies haven't seen an uptick in the number of complaints in recent months. In this fiscal year that started in July, the Bar's Unlicensed Practice of Law Department has opened 299 cases. Of those, 37 have been immigration cases, about the same as previous years.
But attorneys across the country are reporting a similar spike in recent weeks, said Matthew Blaisdell, chairman of the American Immigration Lawyers Association's committee on unauthorized practice of law.
"I think it's probably an increase in notario activity and an increase in people figuring out that they're being ripped off, either on their own or through more public information," Blaisdell said.
Some states are passing tougher laws to crack down on the practice, but enforcement is only part of the solution, Blaisdell said. Educating immigrants about the importance of working with trained legal professionals and expanding access to affordable legal services will go further as preventive measures.
With that goal in mind, Redlands Christian Migrant Association is in the process of bolstering its legal services through a grant from the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. Castro is training five staffers who will earn accreditation so they can provide legal services.
"When you tell someone what to do and what not to do, they pass that information on to their neighbors or co-workers," Castro said, "and that's how you empower them so they don't fall prey to a notario or someone who's going to scam them."
Contact Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.