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Council panel OKs aid for immigrants seeking citizenship

L&I Committee passed a bill addressing immigration-services fraud.

COUNCILMAN Denny O'Brien won a small victory yesterday when a Council committee approved a bill that would give added protections to immigrants seeking citizenship but who get scammed along the way.

City Council's Committee on Licenses and Inspections approved the measure on "notario" (Spanish for "notary" or "lawyer") fraud, which takes advantage of people seeking U.S. citizenship and paying for services that do them no good. The legislation would establish new licensing requirements, standards and protections and create penalties to better regulate immigration-assistance services.

"Given the size of Philadelphia's immigrant community, such providers have a significant impact on the social, cultural and economic life of the city," O'Brien said. "Currently in Philadelphia, we have no regulation of this practice."

He introduced the bill in March, and Council's Public Safety Committee held hearings at which several victims of the fraud testified. The councilman said a few bad actors are blocking people's paths to citizenship.

"And make no mistake, those knowingly and intentionally preying upon and deceiving our immigrant population are committing a fraud," he said. "Some have even dubbed it as a perfect crime because victims are often afraid to come forward due to real or perceived repercussions or a simple and basic fear of the government."

According to Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the city's Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs, about 50,000 legal permanent Philly residents are eligible to become citizens but have not taken steps to naturalize.

"Fraudulent notaries and so-called immigration-services consultants take advantage of immigrants by claiming to offer affordable immigration advice in the client's native language and in a culturally competent manner," she said.

These people face three main obstacles that make them more susceptible to fraud, said Rodriguez: lack of affordable legal help, lack of English proficiency and lack of reliable information about quality immigrant services.

The bill goes to the full Council for a vote next week.