Sometimes bills written with the best of intentions backfire. Assembly Bill 638 has an admirable goal of reducing immigration fraud, but would make it harder for immigrants to get help with routine visa applications.
This bill – set to go before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday – would eliminate the jobs of immigration consultants, a low-cost resource for immigrants who need non-legal assistance.
Immigration consultants translate and fill out visa forms and help secure supporting documents, such as birth certificates. Poor immigrants turn to consultants because they can’t afford lawyers, who often charge thousands of dollars more to prepare a routine visa application.
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Nonprofit organizations, operating with a small number of volunteer attorneys and fewer than 300 federally-accredited non-attorney representatives across California, cannot fill this affordability gap because there aren’t enough of them.
Proponents of AB 638 – introduced by Assemblywomen Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, and Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego – claim immigration consultants should be eliminated because they lack the training to spot legal problems, putting immigrants in jeopardy of deportation. But well-trained consultants know their limits, and use attorney-developed screening questions to identify cases to refer to attorneys.
The bill’s supporters urge this drastic step in the name of protecting immigrants. But California’s approximately 1,000 bonded immigration consultants undergo a background check and most are honest people who have been in business for decades and have helped thousands of immigrants. Many are female, Hispanic small business owners and many are immigrants themselves. Along with their employees, they will be financially destroyed by AB 638.
And unless immigrants can come up with enough money for legal fees, they would be on their own and could fall prey to criminals offering unregulated “assistance.” There are ways immigration consultant services could be improved to genuinely protect immigrants, but that’s not what AB 638 does.
Let’s not deprive low-income immigrants of access to the help they need with this “right issue, wrong solution” bill.
Arnold S. Rosenberg, former assistant dean of California Western School of Law, is administrator of the bankruptcy program at the Legal Aid Society of San Diego. The views are his own, and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.