Robin Bikkal discusses how to avoid becoming a victim of immigration fraud
Outreach to young immigrants comes with a warning
State: Federal deferral program opens door to fraud over proper filing of paperwork
By ERNIE GARCIA
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original Publication: October 24, 2012)
A new federal immigration program has small businesses in Hispanic neighborhoods offering illegal immigrants help filling out forms – even as state officials warn against the potential for fraud.
New York Secretary of State Cesar Perales cautions immigrants to be wary of notaries, travel agencies and insurance agencies offering immigration services. Yet storefront business owners who offer such services argue that immigrants who need a little assistance filling out forms can come to them without incurring the expense of an attorney.
In September, New York adopted new regulations to combat immigration-advice fraud. Those regulations, which take effect Dec. 26, require notaries who publish advertisements in foreign languages to include a disclaimer stating that they are not attorneys and that they are not allowed to give legal advice about immigration.
“For a long time now, con artists have been hiding behind the veil of the notary public occupation to commit egregious acts of fraud and victimize thousands of people in our state,” Perales said.
The warnings and outreach to immigrants are being spurred by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that lets immigrant teens and young adults who were brought into the United States illegally as children seek a two-year deferral that will allow them to work legally in the country, among other benefits.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service estimates that 40,000 to 80,000 young people in New York qualify for this program, though fewer than 6,700 New Yorkers have applied for the program so far.
The USCIS’s website says that nonattorney businesses can charge a “small fee” for “limited help,” such as helping someone write answers to questions on USCIS forms or translating documents into English.
That’s the kind of help Christian Chavez said he’s giving immigrants who come to his office at 128 N. Main St. in Port Chester, where his business, the Centro Hispano Tax Service, displays a large poster about the deferred action program.
“We’re dealing with simple cases,” said Chavez. “In the cases that are very complicated, where the person could be at risk of deportation, I tell them to go to a lawyer.”
But Robin Bikkal, a White Plains-based immigration attorney, said application forms aren’t as easy as they seem.
“There’s always a lot of law and regulations behind what seems to be very simple sentences and very simple things to comply with,” said Bikkal, who since deferred action was announced in June has obtained the new deferrals for five of her clients. “This is a one-time chance for these young people and (applications) have to be processed carefully.”
The USCIS website also states that only attorneys or accredited nonprofit organizations can give legal advice about which forms to submit, explain immigration options or communicate with the USCIS about a petitioner’s case.
“We try to not give any advice,” said Ramon Soto, who runs a multiservice business at 13 Broadway in Haverstraw, where the window has a poster for immigration attorney Gisela Chavez-Garcia.
Soto, who also publishes El Sol de New York, a Spanish-language newspaper, said many young people have come into his office to ask about deferred action.
“We simply tell them to speak to the lawyer,” Soto said.
Chavez-Garcia said she has processed between 10 and 20 deferred applications from Soto’s Haverstraw office. While she acknowledged that a nonattorney can prepare the applications, she advised against it.
“Although USCIS said they’re not going to share information with (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), at the end of the day they are sharing,” said Chavez-Garcia. “I think it is worth having a lawyer take a look at the case and making sure everything is done correctly and that it doesn’t contain any information that could be detrimental later on.”
Spring Valley attorney Vince Sykes said there could be a “huge repercussion” if an illegal immigrant fills out the application incorrectly.
“USCIS could potentially put you in a removal proceeding,” said Sykes, who is in the process of submitting applications for a few clients.
Moises Rosales of RH Smart Tax Services at 104 N. Main St. in Port Chester advertised deferred action preparation in a local, biweekly Spanish-language newspaper. Rosales said that attorneys – and the state officials they lobby – have a financial incentive to warn illegal immigrants against using a business like his, even though Rosales said he’s had no complaints from his clients.
John Gaccione, acting director of Westchester County’s consumer protection office, said that he has not received any consumer complaints about RH Smart Tax Services or Centro Hispano Tax Service this year or in 2011.
“We charge a reasonable fee. It’s more a service to the public,” said Rosales, whose charges range from $450 to $490 for filling out the application, translating any subsequent letters from the government and helping clients prepare responses to letters. “We won’t give them legal advice and we can’t represent them before an immigration court, but they can come here and ask about letters they’ve received.”
Rosales is registered as a notary in Connecticut, where he has offices in Stamford and Bridgeport, but not in New York. Even if Rosales were a registered notary in New York, state officials would discourage him from giving deferred-action assistance.
“Notaries public are not authorized to provide assistance to DACA eligible youth,” said New York Department of State spokesman Edison Alban. “Anyone looking for DACA assistant should make sure the person with whom they are engaging for services is authorized and-or licensed to practice law.”