Throwing a spotlight on immigration scams perpetrated by people who pretend to be lawyers, a panel of legal specialists issued a warning Wednesday: In matters of immigration law, "the wrong help" most certainly "can hurt."
Citing scams in which unsuspecting - and sometimes colluding - immigrants pay tens of thousands of dollars to self-described experts who promise green cards, visa extensions, or naturalized citizenship, the panel said the immigrants usually get nothing, and often worsen their shots at legal status.
Undocumented immigrants, who fear deportation if they complain publicly, are the easiest marks, the speakers said.
In other instances, relatives and friends who offer help to fill out and file documents may mean well, but are unqualified to provide legal advice.
The panel, "Combating Immigration Scams," was held at the regional office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in West Philadelphia.
It consisted of representatives of CIS, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia, and a Villanova University third-year law student involved in the university's law clinic on "notario fraud," shorthand for fake-lawyer scams.
In Latin American countries, said the student, Vanessa Stine, a person who is a notario publico is a lawyer. But in the United States, the term frequently is hijacked by individuals without training or expertise in the law who claim to have insider connections that can get results.
The audience of about 25 included immigration lawyers and some advocates who are trained and accredited by CIS to help immigrants through recognized nonprofit organizations, whose fees rarely go above several hundred dollars.
While participants offered no statistics on the frequency of such scams, Miriam Enriquez, legislative director for Philadelphia City Council Member Dennis O'Brien, said during a break in the two-hour session that the scams are of public concern.
On Thursday, she said, O'Brien intends to introduce a resolution asking Council's Committee on Public Safety to hold hearings on the impact of notario and other forms of immigration-consultant fraud.
Those hearings, if authorized, she said, likely would take place next year.