Earlier this month, the Department of Justice issued a cease-and-desist letter to the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), ordering it to stop providing immigrants with legal help “unless it undertakes formal representation of a client.” NWIRP has been providing legal representation to more than 200 immigrants every year for free. It also helps hundreds more people by assisting with their paperwork, which can be confusing and hard to properly finish in time, without anyone formally representing them.
The DOJ frowned upon this, and claimed that it aimed to reduce attorney misconduct and “notario” fraud with the cease-and-desist letter. This type of fraud occurs when people unauthorized to practice law advertise to help immigrants obtain lawful status. On May 17, U.S. District Judge Richard Jones ordered a temporarily block on the Justice Department’s order.
The DOJ claimed to regulate the law industry and reduce the fraud being committed against immigrants through this order, but at the same time some immigrants were suddenly without a free legal service. On the surface, it was nondiscriminatory. The order was intended to work well within the current framework of law. In reality, though, the order could have undermined immigrants’ rights had it not been blocked by a Seattle judge.
While legal services are usually costly, NWIRP provides free help for hundreds of people each year. It is one of many traceable organizations in this country conducting such services. Banning it from its work will not significantly decrease “notario” fraud. Many unauthorized agents advertise and approach immigrants privately, and punishing organizations which are responsible for their actions does not halt the irresponsible practice of law.
As an international student holding a nonimmigrant student visa, I was once told that applicants should promise to immigration officers that we students would return to our home countries upon finishing our degrees. The simple reason was to decrease the possibility of being rejected from entry into the country.
In my years studying in the United States, I finished my paperwork independently without external help, and I made mistakes, realized them, and fixed them just in time. Even though I am a college-educated writer with proficient English, the process was not easy. There was much inaccurate, confusing, and conflicting information surrounding the whole process. One small mistake can violate a visa holder’s legal status.
The requirements to temporarily work in the United States for 12 months after graduation are not low. Foreign students are required to report their jobs to schools they graduate from and such jobs have to be related to their majors. The application fee for me is $410, with an expected processing time of three months by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Although I do not plan to stay here permanently, I can now understand why life looks a bit scary for a foreign student who does not secure a job before graduation.
The bar for naturalized immigrants who seek their U.S. passports is even higher, as is the application fee. The process is longer and more complicated. Sometimes I wonder if it really takes so much effort for a government agency to read these materials, and whether these measures intentionally discourage applicants who are not financially secure or proficient in English.
Very few American friends of mine know these things when we discuss such topics occasionally. But many of them are sympathetic and willing to help immigrants who are in trouble or who are confused. After all, it is too soon for American people to tell whether the immigration law needs to be amended if they do not know much about the current law.
But the choice belongs to the voters. They can read the current law, hear stories of future immigrants, and vote to decide what to do next.
Reach writer Zezhou Jing at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @Zz_Jing