With immigration enforcement rapidly becoming more aggressive, immigrants have a lot of questions and concerns, but they should be cautious about who they turn to for help, warns one immigration lawyer.
“There’s just people out there who are willing to scam or take advantage of the fear that people are experiencing right now,” said attorney Veronica B. Guinto at an immigration rights training session at Mission Hiring Hall organized by a job-placement startup called Instawork Monday afternoon.
“Make sure you find reputable help,” she added.
Guinto said many of her clients have been the victims of dishonest practitioners who claim to be able to “guarantee” them a visa, a green card, or even citizenship. Others charge money for copies of blank forms that are available for free online. Still others, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, charge individuals or families to secure a place “in line” for documentation – but no such line exists.
Trouble can also arise when immigrants seek out services from someone who sounds official but is not a licensed lawyer. One common problem is that of the “notario,” Guinto said. The term refers in many Latin American countries to someone who practices law, but locally, no such profession exists.
Some, Guinto said, call themselves “notarios” with the intention of attracting and cheating clients who seek legal help.
“A notario does not have to go to law school. Try not to go to a notario, because instead of improving your situation, there’s a risk that in the end you may end up in a worse situation,” said Elizabeth Myers, who works with Guinto as a paralegal and is a lawyer in her native Peru. “Investigate…before going to a consultation with these people.”
But the term can also be confusing for immigrants who are told they need to get documents notarized, as one attendee of the workshop pointed out.
“A lot of people are trying to build their emergency plan and are being told that documents for children should be signed by a notary,” the woman pointed out.
Guinto emphasized that notaries in the United States can only officiate documents and signatures. They should not be asked to submit immigration documents or assist clients in their immigration process.
Clients can verify whether someone is a lawyer licensed in California by searching their name on the California Bar Association website. While there is no certification for immigration consultation, she added, there are legitimate “BIA representatives.” These are individuals, accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals and listed here, who are not attorneys but can assist immigrants in deportation proceedings.
Guinto encouraged immigrants to review their options. Green card holders, for example, should check if they qualify for citizenship, visa holders to see if they might become permanent residents, and undocumented residents should check to see if they qualify for any kind of visa.
An undocumented immigrant, for example, could qualify for a U-visa, which is open to victims of certain types of crimes including violent crimes and sexual assault and some others, like extortion. The Immigrant Legal Resource Center has more information on what types of crimes are applicable and what documents are required.
Having immigrated from a country with ‘temporary protected status,’ having relatives who are citizens, having immigrated as a child, or having a family member in the military may all be factors for visa consideration. Under a law that recently went into effect, immigrants with a criminal conviction, who can show that they did not know at the time of pleading guilty that it might have impacts on their immigration status, may be able to get their record cleared.
Guinto also urged immigrants to plan ahead for their children to be taken care of if parents should be detained.
“Some attorneys are encouraging people to enter into power of attorney to identify someone who can step in your shoes and do all the things you would need to do if you were here,” she said.
It is also essential, she noted, for schools to have properly notarized forms identifying who a child can go home with if a parent is unable to get them. Schools should also have a list of care instructions for any medical condition a child might have.
Finances, Guinto said, should also be attended to.
“Another thing we encourage is to save money now,” she said. “If you’re detained you can post a bond to immigration court. That costs money.”
A judge sets the bond amount depending on whether the detainee is deemed a flight risk, she said.
Of course, avoiding detention entirely is preferable, and Guinto emphasized the importance of exercising the right to remain silent. Like many other immigration experts, she recommended keeping the door shut if ICE agents should come to call, and the use of a “red card.” These are small cards printed with an affirmation of the right to remain silent, keep the door shut, and not provide information, which serve as both a reminder to the holder and as a statement to ICE agents.
She also outlined different kinds of warrants, as agents are only authorized to enter a home without invitation if they have a warrant signed by a judge. Confusingly, ICE can issue its own ‘administrative warrants’ (example) which are labeled as warrants but not signed by a judge and do not grant agents the right to enter a home without invitation. Only search or arrest warrants signed by a judge (example) grant that privilege.
Guinto also warned against signing anything during encounters with ICE or the Department of Homeland Security without consulting a lawyer.
“They will make it a sweet deal and say, if you sign this voluntary [departure] form, then we won’t do ‘X’, we won’t deport you,” she said. Those types of deals usually involve signing away rights, she cautioned.
Several emergency hotlines for immigrants encountering enforcement agents now exist in San Francisco – SFILEN has developed a local hotline: (415) 200-1548 The local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association also has one that offers aid: 1-844-363-1423 or by text at 877877.