San Diego Immigration Attorney Richard S. Sterger of the Mitchell & Shea Law Firm Says California's AB 1159 is a Welcome Protection for a Vulnerable Population

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Assembly Bill 1159 protects undocumented immigrants from wide-spread forms of fraud related to immigration services and the unfounded promises of potential immigration reform.

I am glad to see that the California legislature is finally taking seriously the damage notarios have caused. Immigration law is complex enough and, for undocumented immigrants, the stakes are extremely high. No one should be preyed upon in that situation

Though a comprehensive immigration reform law may be on its way from Washington, it is not here yet. Policy changes now afford temporary legal status and work authorization for those brought to the states as minors, and a bi-partisan Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill has been approved by the Senate. Nevertheless, the Dream Act and other suggested reforms have, in the past, gained traction and still failed to become law. Even as the White House endorses certain policies, substantive laws have not yet been put into place and no federal legislation has been passed to ease the path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. That hasn't stopped people from lining up for help with the process.

As an experienced Immigration Law Attorney with San Diego's Mitchell & Shea, Richard S. Sterger is familiar with many examples in which "immigration consultants and 'notarios' take advantage of people's hope for a new path to citizenship. Undocumented immigrants who are often in a very vulnerable position pay for services that promise something that cannot yet be delivered. AB 1159 should crack down on some of these unscrupulous practices."

The bill clarifies what immigration reform services can be offered and prohibits a demand for fees for any immigration reform that has not yet been enacted. It also provides funding to enforce the new regulations. It was sponsored by the California State Bar Association and authored by San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez. In a press release from her office on September 13, Gonzalez celebrated the passage of the law which will go into effect in January of 2014 and outlined her vision of what the law will accomplish: "As millions of California families face the historic opportunity of improving their lives by pursuing a pathway to citizenship, the state must be ready to ensure immigration services are performed by competent professionals and include anti-fraud protection."

In a September 16, 2013 article "Bill would protect undocumented immigrants from fraud, financial abuse" Tatiana Sanchez of Southern California's Desert Sun newspaper echoes Assemblywoman Gonzalez when she writes that the intent of the law is "to protect undocumented immigrants seeking a path to citizenship from fraud and financial abuse, something lawmakers say is extremely common throughout the region. Often professionals require payment for immigration services, while promising clients that they could 'cut to the front of the line,' once federal reform is passed." With high hopes, many undocumented immigrants have paid hundreds and even thousands of dollars to people who appear to be trustworthy but who may be taking advantage of the hopes of this vulnerable population. Not only does the new law explicitly state what services can be offered and what services can demand payment, it also seeks to clear up a major source of confusion that has lead to widespread abuse.

Sterger says that "another crucial aspect of this bill is the way it addresses the problem of 'notarios' in California." In many Latin American countries, 'notario' means lawyer. But, Sterger adds, "in California, a person does not have to be licensed to practice law to call themselves a notario. With the passage of the bill, non-lawyers will no longer be able to call themselves notarios." This, he says, should cut down on confusion and fraud. "I see clients all the time who have paid someone for a promise and that promise is never fulfilled. Notarios have no obligation to know the law and, quite often, take money but provide no services. When someone calls themselves a lawyer, they should abide by professional codes of conduct and be licensed to practice law. That seems like common sense and it's good to see the legislature recognize this. My hope is that more states will follow suit and protect immigrants from financial abuse. As an immigration attorney, I make transparent what my clients are getting and I never make false promises. My professional reputation rests on my commitment to my clients and my clear communication with them. Notarios often thrive on manipulation and obfuscation."

As California, and the nation, awaits a new approach to immigration, laws like AB 1159 will provide some relief. No one who is a non-attorney can present themselves as such. "The attorney-client relationship should always be clear. When I see clients, I tell them how much my services cost, how long the process is likely to take and what their chances of success are. My reputation and my integrity rest upon my word and my commitment to clients. I am glad to see that the California legislature is finally taking seriously the damage notarios have caused. Immigration law is complex enough and, for undocumented immigrants, the stakes are extremely high. No one should be preyed upon in that situation."

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