For more than a decade, Wilfredo Banos persisted through the challenges of living in the United States undocumented. One day he met with an attorney who promised to make him a US citizen. At the end of the consultation, the lawyer hugged him, leaving Wilfredo with a good feeling. The lawyer then charged Wilfredo more than $3000, including unauthorized credit card charges, and filed a frivolous asylum claim, landing Wilfredo in deportation proceedings. That lawyer was Michigan attorney Charles Busse.
Five years later, in early 2017, Charles Busse made headlines for an immigration fraud and bribery scheme that involved charging around $990,000 to about 40 clients. As acting US Attorney Daniel Lemisch explained, Busse made “hundreds of thousands of dollars by corruptly exploiting one of the country’s most sensitive immigration benefit programs.” Busse was finally disbarred after years of swindling clients and criminal charges.
Though convictions like Busse’s are rare, immigration scams are rampant. The US immigration system is extremely attractive to scammers, both attorneys and non-attorneys alike, because it is largely inaccessible without legal representation.
“Immigration status” refers to a wide range of designations. These include an alphabet soup of temporary visas from the B-Visa for tourists to the V-Visa for spouses and children of permanent residents. There’s also permanent residency (a.k.a. having a “green card”). US citizenship, which is bestowed on those born in the United States, can also be acquired, derived, or obtained through naturalization.
Immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, face immense pressure to obtain an immigration status that offers family unity, work authorization, driver’s licenses, and affordable health care. The pathways to obtaining immigration status are extremely limited, often involve decades-long waitlists, or are blocked completely by minor criminal convictions or civil immigration violations.
Scammers generally know just enough about the system to feign legitimacy. Many scammers operate by churning out form applications. Need a work permit? There’s a form for that! Never mind that filing one when you are ineligible may get you deported. Slightly more sophisticated scammers may file an asylum application just to get a temporary work permit, without warning immigrants, like Wilfredo, of the harsh penalties associated with filing a frivolous asylum claim.
Scammers also prey on the assumptions that immigrants’ carry from their home country’s legal systems. Notario fraud is a prime example. In many Spanish-speaking countries, a notario público is a specialized attorney. In the United States, a notary public, is typically a non-attorney with limited authority (e.g., acting as a witness or authenticating documents). Some individuals hold themselves out as “notarios” to Spanish-speaking communities with the intent of being perceived as attorneys, charging for legal advice and document preparation.
Scammers look for ways to gain trust and make convincing promises. Attorney scammers often claim they have special insights and connections, knowing that their clients come from legal systems where personal relationships make all the difference. This allows scammers to appear credible when claiming that they can achieve something that a reputable attorney may correctly advise was impossible.
In best-case scenarios, scam victims lose only a few hundred dollars. In the worst situations, victims pay thousands of dollars, never recover original documents, and incur irreversible immigration consequences, including deportation. Families often spend their savings, borrow from others, and forgo basic needs, leaving nothing left to hire counsel in deportation proceedings. Deportees are left without recourse, further insulating scammers from liability.
The prevalence and serious consequences of immigration scams call for effective responses. Educating immigrants on how to avoid scams is an important first step. For example, guarantees of a particular result, especially one that seems too good to be true, should raise a red flag. Immigrants should always seek referrals from trusted resources such as local immigration nonprofits or the IAN National Immigration Legal Services Directory.
Education must be accompanied by accountability. Some states have passed legislation targeting the unauthorized practice of law and notario fraud. Michigan’s Immigration Clerical Assistant Act, for example, creates both criminal penalties and a private right of action for treble damages. California requires immigration service providers to register and pay a surety bond. Efforts by State Attorneys General are essential for criminal prosecutions in cases like Busse’s and for civil enforcement under consumer protection laws.
Enforcing these laws requires building trust with immigrant communities. Undocumented immigrants’ fear of deportation often keeps victims from reporting to government entities. New York is making efforts by publishing fraud awareness resources, hosting the New Americans Hotline, and operating the Immigration Services Fraud Unit. Law enforcement must further assure victims they will not be questioned about their immigration status or reported to immigration enforcement authorities. When scams involve qualifying criminal acts, law enforcement can certify victims as eligible for a status commonly called the “U-Visa.”
Immigrants need access to quality, affordable legal services. There is no constitutional right to a government-appointed attorney in immigration court, even though immigrants face a federal prosecutor in adversarial proceedings and losing means deportation. More than 60 percent of immigrants, including children, appear unrepresented and are two to five times more likely to lose their case without a lawyer. Some communities are responding to immigrants’ need for legal services such as Los Angeles, which created the L.A. Justice Fund to provide legal assistance to unrepresented immigrants facing deportation. The US Department of Justice has made efforts through the Recognition and Accreditation Program, allowing nonprofits to supervise non-attorney representatives.
As attorneys, we can maintain the integrity of our profession in service to vulnerable clients. Many of Mr. Busse’s clients wanted to lodge complaints but found attorneys reluctant to bring grievances. To a knowledgeable immigration practitioner, it is clear when an attorney has committed malpractice. Ultimately, immigrants should walk away from a consultation with a “good feeling” not because of a hug and false promises, but because they are receiving sound legal advice and representation.