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California Immigration Consumer Protection Measure Disappoints

I have reported regularly on the status of efforts in Washinton, D.C. to overhaul our nation's immigration laws. This week there is news to report of a proposed consumer protection bill out of Sacramento, California which anticipates the passage of new laws to fix our broken immigration system. Proposed Assembly Bill 1159 ("AB1159") is the California State Legislature's attempt to provide a solution to what many fear will be a tidal wave of immigration fraud unleashed by the arrival of comprehensive immigration reform.

AB 1159 would require attorneys performing immigration reform act services to, among other things, post a surety bond or maintain malpractice insurance, deposit client funds in a trust account prior to performing legal services, provide a copy of the written fee agreement to the client in his or her native language, refrain from demanding money for services before enactment of comprehensive immigration reform, and file an annual verification of compliance with the new legislation.

AB1159 is as much a knee-jerk reaction to the anticipated passage of a new set of laws by Congress to overhaul America's immigration laws as it is a misguided response to the complex problem known as "notario fraud." On the one hand, the California State Legislature acknowledges the need for non-citizens to enjoy broader access to qualified legal representation in deportation proceedings, while at the same time recognizing the vulnerability of the immigrant population to fraud perpetrated by unauthorized immigration consultants or "notarios." On the other hand, the California State Legislature frets that the arrival of a bill creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals will invite inexperienced attorneys to offer reform act services which they are not qualified to perform -- and hurt their clients in the process.

That is all well and good. But the onerous requirements set forth in AB1159 are actually self-defeating and inimical to the goal of widening access to qualified, affordable legal representation in immigration matters. AB1159 encroaches indelicately on the attorney-client relationship and imposes onerous requirements that will actually discourage new practitioners from entering the field of immigration law at a moment when the need for qualified immigration attorneys could not be greater.

The California State Legislature would do better to work with the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), of which I am a member, to develop sensible legislation that protects consumers by, for example, increasing education requirements for attorneys who provide immigration reform act services. At the same time, the California State Legislature should enact legislation which creates a zero tolerance policy for immigration consultants and notarios who cross the line between preparing immigration forms and giving legal advice they are not qualified to provide.

Timothy D. Widman is a San Jose Immigration Attorney and the owner of the Law Office of Timothy D. Widman.

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