Securing work visas, adjusting immigration status and embarking on other immigration matters can be quite confusing, particularly for those who speak English as a second language (or not at all). Unfortunately, there is no shortage of businesses and individuals trying to take advantage of those seeking immigration services. Immigration fraud includes the solicitation of services by those unauthorized to practice law; the sale of immigration forms otherwise offered for free by the U.S. government; promises to expedite immigration petitions for a fee; and related scams.
Some unauthorized practitioners genuinely mean well but many of them intend to rip off unsuspecting clients. Not only can such fraudulent services delay an application or cost petitioners unnecessary fees, but in some cases can lead to removal proceedings or other adverse actions.
This article covers the most common forms of immigration fraud, tips for avoiding such scams, resources for reporting immigration fraud, and more.
Common Types of Immigration Fraud
1. Businesses Promising Premium Services
Some businesses may offer premium services, even "guarantees," of visas, green cards, employment authorization documents, or or other processes. Typically, they will charge a higher fee than what the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) would charge, regardless of whether or not an actual immigration lawyer prepares the documents on the applicant's behalf.
Sometimes they even claim the ability to file and process your application or petition faster than going directly through the federal agency. Such claims are always false.
While there are some exceptions to normal USCIS application processing times (see the USCIS web site for more information), supposed immigration service providers have no such ability to influence these times. A licensed immigration attorney would be your best source of information on these matters.
2. Non-Governmental Web Sites
Some web sites offer specific, step-by-step instructions for filling out applications or petitions and solicit downloadable immigration forms for a fee. They often claim to be affiliated with the USCIS, although usually this is not the case.
Even if step-by-step instructions for a given immigration procedure seem correct, make sure you refer to the USCIS web site as an authoritative source. The official USCIS web site offers free downloads of immigration forms, detailed instructions, and information about processing times and filing fees.
You should never pay for blank USCIS forms.
3. Visa Lottery Claims
In an effort to encourage more applicants from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S., the Dept. of State (DOS) offers 50,000 so-called "diversity visas" (DVs) to those meeting eligibility requirements. They are offered via random selection, so any claims to "guarantee" selection or otherwise improve one's chances of getting a DV are always fraudulent.
Typically, such fraudulent claims and offers come in the form of unsolicited emails or online advertisements, often referencing the terms "DV lottery," "visa lottery," or "green card lottery." Make no mistake, the only way to apply for the DV lottery is by filing an official application with the Dept. of State, which does not send emails to applicants.
4. Services Offered by "Notarios Publicos"
In the U.S., a "notary public" is an individual commissioned by the state's secretary of state to authenticate ("notarize") signatures on legal documents, among other duties, but who is not necessarily a legal professional. In Mexico and many other Latin American countries, the Spanish translation of notary public -- "notario publico" -- refers to a legal professional who is authorized to practice law; mediate or arbitrate disputes; issue judicial opinions; and check the accuracy and integrity of certain legal documents.
If a "notario publico" in the U.S. offers to handle an immigration case beyond the scope of what a "notary public" is authorized to do, he or she may be illegally practicing law. There may also be some confusion with the term that does not involve outright fraud.
Tips for Avoiding Immigration Fraud
Applying for a visa or adjusting one's immigration status can be quite daunting, especially for individuals who are unfamiliar with the law, language or culture. Here are some tips to help you avoid some of the more common immigration scams:
- USCIS never charges a fee to download immigration forms; forms can be found at the USCIS forms page.
- Read all form instructions carefully and fill in all required fields.
- Remember to review your form, make sure you fully understand it, and sign it before sending your form to the USCIS.
- Do not sign blank forms.
- Filing fees are accepted via money order, certified check or credit card.
- Keep copies of all documentation, including forms filed with the USCIS.
- Obtain a receipt for any payment made to an immigration attorney or accredited representative.
- If you are working with an immigration lawyer, check the bar association of your state to make sure the attorney is eligible to practice law there.
- If you are working with a non-attorney, make sure that individual is an accredited representative, as recognized by the Dept. of Justice's Board of Immigration Appeals.
- Consider seeking a second opinion if you have any doubts about a professional who may be handling your case.
How to Report Immigration Fraud
If you believe you have been the victim of immigration fraud, you may report the alleged scam to the Federal Trade Commission or file a complaint with your state. Simply reporting an incident of immigration fraud will not affect your immigration case, so make sure you take whatever additional steps are necessary to properly handle your application or petition.
USCIS provides a state-by-state directory of consumer fraud laws and contact information for reporting suspected cases of immigration fraud.