Taking aim at scams against vulnerable immigrants, Philadelphia City Council moved closer Wednesday to landmark legislation regulating immigration-service providers.
The ordinance, approved unanimously by Council's licensing and inspection committee, regulates advertising claims, translation, document procurement, and other services. Its goal is to thwart the people who prey on immigrants by pretending to be lawyers or demanding money for free forms, among other frauds.
When the person who offers assistance is not a lawyer, the ordinance requires boldface office signage that says that. It further states that translators should transcribe responses but are not allowed to tell clients exactly what to say. Violators risk fines and the loss of their commercial-service licenses.
"We have a historic opportunity," said the bill's sponsor, Councilman Dennis O'Brien. Only New York and Chicago have similar municipal protections for immigrants, he said.
O'Brien said President Obama's recent executive action on immigration, which beckoned up to five million undocumented immigrants to register with authorities in exchange for conditional protection against deportation, adds urgency to the ongoing need because many immigrants will seek advice in the coming months.
"You know that every Tom, Dick, and Harry in Philadelphia will hang out a shingle, holding themselves out as experts on immigration services," O'Brien said.
Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of Mayor Nutter's Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs, testified that an estimated 50,000 legal permanent residents of Philadelphia - green-card holders - are eligible to become citizens "but have not yet taken the necessary steps to naturalize."
She said they face three main challenges: lack of affordable legal services, lack of English proficiency, and "lack of reliable information about quality immigrant services."
Rebecca Swanson, director of policy and legislative affairs for the Department of Licenses and Inspections, testified that the ordinance, if enacted, "will be of value to consumers in helping them understand what immigration services providers can and cannot ethically and legally do."
The bill is scheduled for a first reading Thursday. Supporters said they are hoping for passage before the end of the year.