This Is News: Actual Enforcement Against Shady Immigration Consultants!

oakland courtIn today’s news piece, “Judge: Co. Owes $15M in Botched Immigration Forms,” NBC Bay Area states that the Oakland City Attorney has obtained a $15.1  million court judgment against a fraudulent immigration consulting  business, so-called “American Legal Services.” This company’s actions — we can’t call them legal services, because there seems not to have been a single attorney on staff — are said to have resulted in many Oakland families who were seeking immigration help losing vast amounts of money or winding up in removal (deportation) proceedings.

This story is both surprising and not. The “not surprising” part is that immigrants and their families are prey for unscrupulous fraudsters. That’s been going on for years.

Every immigration attorney has had clients come to them after their case was botched by someone who had no idea what they were doing, but pretended otherwise and charged a lot of money. Many use the name “notario,” because in the Spanish-speaking community, it implies someone with actual training, while in the U.S., it just means someone who’s a notary public — that is, can confirm your signature using a rubber stamp.

The surprising part is that someone is actually doing something about it! Immigrants are seemingly so low on the list of societal priorities that such issues often go unaddressed by enforcement authorities — even when all the evidence is right in front of their faces.

I once had a case where a client paid a fraudster to put a green card stamp in her passport (a stamp which he’d somehow acquired straight from U.S. immigration authorities). You’d think that would have been seen as a serious matter by anyone within the immigration system. But when I pointed it out to the attorney for the Department of Homeland Security, and urged him to go after the guy, he shrugged. As far as I know, that was the end of it.

But let’s hope the Oakland court judgement is a sign of more enforcement to come. If you’ve been harmed by a fraudulent immigration service provider, you can add to the push for further enforcement by reporting it to the police, district attorney’s office, and state bar association. And if you’re seeking immigration services, see “How to Avoid a Sleazy Immigration Lawyer” for more information.

Foreign Student Numbers Recovered Since 9/11

Graduation-5502One of the unpredictable consequences of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. was that the number of foreign students coming to the U.S. plummeted — and remained low for several years thereafter. The reason was, in no small part, rumors indicating that many of the hijackers had come to the U.S. on student visas.

Only one of them did, actually, as detailed by FactCheck.org. The rest of the 19 hijackers mostly used business or tourist visas. But that fact did not slow down efforts to add security checks to the student visa application process and to the monitoring of students after arrival in the U.S. — efforts which went a little haywire and led, for a time, to massive delays, denials, and discouragement facing would-be foreign students.

Why should we care? Well, there’s the fact that foreign students tend to learn about the U.S. and adjust their preexisting stereotypes, — and vice versa as they meet U.S. students — potentially leading to greater worldwide understanding.

Foreign students also contribute financially, starting, but not ending, with their payments of tuition (out-of-state, in many cases). See this report from the American Immigration Council: “Record Number of International Students Add $24 billion to U.S. Economy.”

Also, the “bait and switch” aspects of American immigration law have always bothered me. We offer various visas and benefits, but then frequently treat the people who would like to take advantage of them as criminals, regardless of whether they’ve done the slightest thing to warrant suspicion.

In any case, things seem to have calmed down a bit, and statistics collected by the Institute of International Education show that, since approximately 2007, the numbers of foreign students in the U.S. have steadily risen. In 2013, the U.S. reached a record 819,644 foreign students, most of them from China, India, and South Korea. See the “Open Doors Data” portal for details.

And if you’re interested in studying in the U.S., the Nolo site offers a wealth of information in its “Student and Exchange Visitor Visas” section.

Check Your Passport BEFORE Submitting Form N-400 Naturalization Application

airplanePicture this: You fill out Form N-400, the application for U.S. citizenship. On one of the questions, you’re asked to list all your trips outside the U.S. for the past five years. “That’s easy, I haven’t taken any trips for at least five years,” you think, and enter “N/A” in this section.

The day of your interview arrives. You go over the list of what you need to bring to the interview. It includes the passport of your home county. You dig through your possessions until you finally find the passport, and rush to your interivew.

Everything at the interview is going well. Your spoken and written English are fine, and you’ve memorized the history and government questions and easily pass this part of the test. Then the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) examiner opens your passport. “Hmm, there’s a visa stamp showing that you HAVE traveled outside the U.S. in the last five years,” she notices.

Uh oh. This is exactly the situation faced by an applicant with whom I reasonably spoke — a careful, professional person, whose memory had just happened to lapse slightly when it came to the matter of recent travel. And now the applicant was facing a USCIS examiner who was suddenly suspicious about the discrepancy between what was written on the N-400 application and what the passport showed.

Fortunately, after some embarrassed explanation, this applicant was able to convince the examiner that the undisclosed travel was a mere oversight, and obtained approval for U.S. citizenship. But not every applicant is going to meet a similarly understanding examiner.

The lesson here is simple: No matter how good you think your memory, check your passport and any other official documents concerning matters to be entered on your N-400 application for U.S. citizenship. For more information on the application process, see the book, Becoming a U.S. Citizen: A Guide to the Law, Exam & Interview (N0lo).

It’s National Hug Your Immigration Lawyer Day!

mexican immWell, no, it’s not really. (But with all the national days on the calendar, who’s checking?)

And immigration lawyers are one group that deserves more appreciation than it gets, in a world where lawyers consistently rank at the bottom of the public opinion scales.

Here are some reasons to give a little love to this country’s immigration lawyers (the good ones, anyway — there are some bad ones out there, too):

  • They’re not getting rich off their work. Immigration lawyers usually work as solo practitioners, which means paying a lot of office overhead in return for payments of flat fees or low hourly rates, at amounts that reflect their clients’ typical lack of ability to pay big bucks. (And forget chasing down payment if the judge orders the client deported!) Noodling around online, all the surveys I found put immigration lawyers’ salaries in the $70,000 range — which would be considered peanuts by most attorneys. It’s less if the attorneys work at a nonprofit organization.
  • They do a lot of volunteer work. Huge numbers of immigrants cannot afford even an hour of a lawyer’s fees, yet are desperately in need of representation, for example with cases for asylum (because they’ve fled persecution in another country) or  deportation defense. The U.S. government provides no funding at all to help with this. (There is no immigration equivalent to the “public defender” program for U.S. criminal cases.) So immigration lawyers, often with the coordination and help of perpetually underfunded immigration-service nonprofits, attempt to pick up the slack.
  • They’re grappling with the most complex body of law on the books. For real. As is often repeated, it’s more complicated than the tax code. And it’s treated as a political football, with clauses added and subtracted with every new Congress or President.
  • They can do everything right and still have the case go wrong. I don’t want to point fingers, but . . . well, yes I do want to point fingers. The entire immigration bureaucracy, including the State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, is a morass of paperwork, process, and inconsistency. Ask any immigration lawyer, and you’ll get tales of frustration — delays and lost files or checks, demands for documents that are legally irrelevant, denials that made no sense or were based on bias or lack of cultural awareness, and so on. These can be difficult to explain to clients, who’ve paid their fees and expect to see some results — or who even believe that the attorneys are somehow in league with the U.S. government.
  • They occasionally pull off miracles. Every time I attend an immigration lawyer’s conference, I hear some story of a lawyer who went to bat on a case I would have thought was a sure loser — and won. That kind of spirit and optimism is hard to maintain, and makes a big difference for other immigrants down the line.

Need I say more? Actually, I have said more, about the important process of choosing, hiring, or firing an immigration attorney.

Got Immigration Court Oct. 18? BE THERE!

traffic_lightAs you may have heard, the U.S. federal government shutdown has been brought to an end (at least for this year). We can probably expect that immigration-related operations by the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will pick up slowly, with some delays as workers who were furloughed get back to the piles on their desks.

In the case of Immigration Court proceedings, however (which are run by the Department of Justice), things are already moving quickly. While court hearings that were scheduled for today (October 17, 2013) in non-detained cases will not go forward, anyone with a hearing set for tomorrow, October 18, 2013, needs to be there! If you haven’t heard from your attorney about this, give him or her a call.

The “EOIR Operations for October 17, 2013” page of the Department of Justice website provides details.EEOIR Operations for October 17, 2013OIR Operations for October 17, 2013

California Lawmakers Take Practical Approach to Treatment of Undocumented Immigrants

sanjoseAn estimated two-million plus undocumented immigrants live, work, study, and otherwise make their home in California.

So perhaps it’s fitting that the California legislature recently passed a number of bills (subsequently signed by Governor Jerry Brown) that seem designed to make sure that, as long as they’re here, the undocumented are not treated in ways that are either grossly unfair or lead to unfortunate or dangerous unintended consequences.

Here’s a brief summary of the new laws (click the links for details):

  • AB 4, which forbids law enforcement officials from detaining noncitizens beyond their release date on the basis of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hold, unless the person has actually been convicted of one of various crimes or meets certain specified conditions. (This seems designed to put a stop to the expense and absurdity of local law enforcement agencies serving as detention units for the federal government by holding undocumented immigrants even if the criminal charges against them were dismissed or were minor in nature.)
  • AB 35, which says that no one can charge fees for serving people applying for the immigration program known as “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (or DACA) unless they are either immigration consultants, attorneys, notaries public, or organizations that have received accreditation from the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals (B.I.A.); and even those who have received such accreditation cannot engage in price gouging.
  • AB 60, which makes undocumented California residents eligible for a drivers’ license upon providing satisfactory proof of identity and state residency. The license will contain a notation stating that it “does not establish eligibility for employment, voter registration, or public benefits,” and will contain the initials “DP” (Drivers Privilege) instead of “DL” (Drivers’ License).
  • AB 524, which specifies that threatening to report the immigration status or suspected immigration status of an person or family may be considered an inducement of fear sufficient to constitute extortion, and thus punishable under the California Penal Code.
  • AB 1024, which allows undocumented persons to be admitted to the California State Bar Association as attorneys, and therefore to practice law in this state.
  • AB 1159, which attempts to crack down on the practice of immigration law without a license, by imposing financial penalties on people who pose as attorneys, in particular by calling themselves “notarios” or other terms which have a more elevated meaning in other countries. The law specifies that the proceeds shall be used to help people damaged by such con artists, as well as to provide free legal advice concerning federal immigration reform.
  • SB 141, which requires community colleges and universities within the California state system to charge in-state, resident tuition to U.S. citizens who live in a foreign country because their parent or guardian was deported or voluntarily departed from the U. S., so long as they will be entering in their first year as matriculated students, can demonstrate financial need, lived in California immediately before moving abroad, attended a secondary school in California for at least three years, and intend to establish residency in California.
  • SB 150, which authorizes community college districts to charge only in-state, resident tuition to certain special part-time students, namely high schoolers who would benefit from advanced scholastic or vocational work, if they are non-citizens in financial need, or students from other states who had to move due to Hurricane Katrina.
  • SB 666, which creates criminal and civil penalties for attorneys and businesses that retaliate against employees and others on the basis of citizenship and immigration status or who report or threaten to report the suspected immigration status of a witness or party to a lawsuit because the person exercises a right related to employment.

In related news, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors recently passed an ordinance prohibiting law enforcement officials from holding for deportation noncitizens who have not been convicted of felonies or deemed public safety risks. (It’s called the “Due Process Ordinance for All on Civil Immigration Detainers.”) Mayor Lee is expected to sign it.

Chances of Provisional Waiver Approval? About 60-40

tracksThanks to CLINIC (the Catholic Legal Immigration Network), we now have a clearer picture of how U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is responding to requests for provisional waivers (on Form I-601A). The approval rate thus far is 59% — hardly encouraging for prospective applicants. (See “Update from the NBC on Provisional Waivers.”)

The statistics confirm what many immigration attorneys have been observing: The issue of whether USCIS finds “reason to believe” that the applicant could be inadmissible (for reasons other than unlawful presence) accounts for the highest number of denials, at 48% of the total.

According to attorney experience, “reason to believe” is taken extremely broadly by USCIS, with minimal or no consideration given to whether the perceived issue could, if true, actually amount to a ground of inadmissibility. A minor traffic violation on a person’s record, could, for example, lead to denial of the provisional waiver – but is not actually a ground of inadmissibility.

The second highest reason for denial was failure to establish extreme hardship to a qualifying U.S. relative. That’s more in line with what one might expect as a reason for denials. Proving extreme hardship in any immigration context can be tricky, depending as much on one’s ability to weave facts into a compelling narrative and the sympathies of the person making the decision as on whether one applicant’s case is actually any more deserving than another’s.

Should this news discourage people from applying for provisional waivers? In the short term, probably yes. Immigration attorneys are already gearing up to try to convince USCIS to shift its approach on this matter, and the dust will need some time in which to settle.

But if you’ve got unlimited funds, or are urgently in need of a green card, applying now isn’t the worst idea, either. It won’t stop you from applying for another provisional waiver if you can show new information in support of your request. And it won’t stop you from taking a chance and leaving the U.S. to apply for your waiver at an overseas consulate. (If this isn’t making sense to you, then please read the more extensive discussion of how to get a waiver or provisional waiver of unlawful presence on the “Waivers and Inadmissibility” page of Nolo’s website.)

The Shutdown Isn’t Total: Don’t Miss Your Green Card Appointment!

stop signAs of October 1, the Republicans have succeeded in shutting down all “non-essential” U.S. government functions. What that means for immigrants, however, depends on which agency you’re dealing with, how its’ funded, how urgent its functions are considered to be, and of course how long this shutdown lasts.

So, for example, if you are scheduled for a green card (adjustment of status) interview during the shutdown, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services so far says that these will continue. On the other hand, immigration court proceedings are largely canceled, except in cases where the person is being held in detention.

And in case you were wondering, the shutdown doesn’t change the fact that today is the first day people from certain countries can apply for the U.S.’s annual diversity visa lottery.

For further details, see Nolo’s update on “What the Federal Shutdown Means for Immigration Agencies.”

With Broken Promises Like These, Why Would Anyone Help the U.S. in a Conflict Zone?

Breaking pointAsk any immigration lawyer: What the law says and what actually happens in real life can be miles apart, due in large part to competing interpretations — or simply bureaucratic foot dragging — by  various U.S. government agencies.

This is nowhere better exemplified than in the case of the Afghan and Iraqi translators and other workers who helped the U.S. government or military during recent conflicts in their countries. They put their lives at risk, knowing that after the U.S. soldiers went home, they’d have to face reprisals from within their own community.

In what was meant to be a response to their plight, the U.S. Congress created visas within the “Special Immigrant” category. (By way of context, years ago, a similar visa was created for citizens of Panama who put themselves at risk on behalf of the U.S.) See “EB-4 Visa for Special Immigrants: Who Qualifies?” for a complete list of who is covered by this section of U.S. immigration law.

The U.S. government has been very careful to make sure this visa did not create an open door for anyone who might want to come to the United States. It added requirements that both the Iraqi and the Afghan workers “experienced or are experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of” their employment.  In order to submit a complete application, they must come up with letters of recommendation and assessments of the risk level that they face, from U.S. supervisors and other higher-ups. In other words, they’re far from seeking U.S. entry based on their word alone!

So why is it that only a miniscule number of visas been handed out in this category, which is due to sunset — that is, drop out of the law books, leaving potential applicants high and dry — in mere weeks? The stories are wrenching, as can be seen in such articles as “America’s Afghan And Iraqi Interpreters Risk Lives But Wait Years In Danger For Visas” and “U.S. Soldier Fights For Afghan Interpreter Who Saved His Life.”

The answer can partly be found in another portion of the requirement for these applicants: that they pass a U.S. security check. Given that the countries from which they hail are among those that the U.S. suspects of supporting or sponsoring terrorism, Mother Teresa herself might have trouble passing the security check. And as described in the media coverage above, once your enemies find out you’re trying to head for the U.S., a well-placed call denouncing you may be all that’s needed to seal your fate.

An even more bizarre reason can be found in this 2011 State Department compliance report regarding the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. It states that, “The embassy opposes the brain drain from Afghanistan of rare, highly qualified individuals. It also questions the realities of the threat environment in individual cases and highlights the extensive resources needed to implement the program.”

Excuse me? Congress saw fit to pass a law to specifically protect people whose lives are at risk, and the embassy in Kabul is worrying about a “brain drain?” I cry foul. Now if Congress would only listen, and extend the sunset date on these laws.

With Immigration Reform Comatose, At Least the Visa Lottery Remains!

enter to winAll reports seem to say that Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) — which looked to be as close to becoming a reality as any similar efforts have in recent years — hit a brick wall as soon as it was passed from the Senate to the House of Representatives. (Are we surprised?) The current forecast for action on the bill is “none.” Although that will leave many people disappointed — including many with close ties to the U.S., as in already living, working, and raising families here — there’s an odd silver lining.

A random assortment of people from around the world with little or no previous connection to the U.S. will continue to receive U.S. green cards through the diversity visa lottery, which CIR had put on the chopping block! Well, perhaps not completely random. Despite the “lottery” moniker, applicants must show that they have achieved a certain level of education. And they may need the wherewithal to hire an attorney to help complete the process if they win, because the State Department always declares more “winners” than it actually has visas, and it becomes a race to finish the process before the end of the relevant fiscal year. See the articles on the “Diversity Visa Lottery Green Cards” page of Nolo’s website for details — and to help avoid the eventual scams that will pop up as they do every year.

By the way, there’s another bright spot in this year’s lottery. Same-sex spouses will now be able to accompany the winners and receive a U.S. green card, provided their marriage is legally recognized in the country or jurisdiction where it took place.

Get ready: The application period opens October 1!