Illinois Bar Journal

June 2017Volume 105Number 6Page 12

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Immigration-related UPL is on the rise, attorneys report

Chicago area immigration attorneys have reportedly seen an uptick in both demand for their services and immigration scams.

Individuals engaged in the unauthorized practice of law are not only breaking the law, they can also cause significant harm to those they purport to assist. In response to the Trump administration's nascent immigration policies, many immigrants seeking legal assistance could fall prey to immigration fraud.

Chicago area immigration attorneys have reportedly seen an uptick in both demand for their services and immigration scams ( Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a press release warning immigrant communities about potential fraud ( Her office recently sued southwest suburb-based Norma Bonilla, who is accused of immigration fraud ( Bonilla has allegedly defrauded at least four people who were seeking immigration law services. Bonilla is not an attorney.

How do people fall prey to these scams? In some cases, their misunderstanding based on the legal conventions of their native cultures may lead them to fall victim to the unauthorized practice of law.

In some countries, for example, notaries ("notarios") are authorized to provide some basic legal services, while in the U.S. they are merely authorized to witness signatures. As such, it is understandable that some immigrants may assume that a notary can assist them with legal services, including immigration services. According to an FAQ published by the ISBA Task Force on Unauthorized Practice of Law, in addition to licensed attorneys, not-for-profit entities registered with the Board of Immigration Appeals can provide immigration law services (

Fear of deportation hampers enforcement

Chicago attorney Timothy E. Moran, chair of the Task Force, says it is made up of an eclectic group of people from different fields and ranges of practice. He says that the Task Force receives unauthorized practice complaints from other attorneys, but also some from the public via its website.

The complaints range from very detailed ones that include supporting documents to others that are very basic, even as short as one sentence. The more detailed complaints tend to come from attorneys. The shorter allegations often come from individuals.

Moran thinks that perhaps they lack details because people are afraid they will disclose that they're in the country illegally. He says that not one Task Force meeting goes by without a complaint about immigration law. The group takes the complaints very seriously and attempts to respond to each one.

The Task Force can do one of two things in response to a complaint. First, it can send an inquiry letter to the person who is the subject of the complaint. The essence of the letter is, "What exactly are you doing?" he says. The Task Force can also send a cease and desist letter. Moran says the letter also educates the person about why what they are doing is the unauthorized practice of law.

The ARDC's role

Although the Task Force cannot directly take action against someone engaged in the unauthorized practice, Moran notes that the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission has jurisdiction over nonattorneys.

The ARDC's jurisdiction is derived from Illinois Supreme Court Rule 779. It gives the commission authority to bring civil and criminal contempt actions against nonlawyers engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.

Scott Kozlov, who is the ISBA Task Force's ARDC liaison, says the ARDC has filed 20 to 25 formal actions under the rule since its December 7, 2011 effective date. The Task Force passes along complaints to the ARDC, which also receives complaints from lawyers, judges, the Attorney General's office, and private citizens. The ARDC does not keep statistics on the types of sources from which it receives complaints.

Kozlov agrees with Moran that victims in immigration cases are frequently afraid to come forward because of their status and also "the perception that government officials at all levels may be communicating." He says that while the ARDC has not seen a noticeable increase in the volume of grievances involving immigration matters, the commission shares jurisdiction over those types of complaints with the Attorney General's office and the various state's attorney's offices. Kozlov cannot speak to the volume of victim complaints received by those entities.

Regarding "notarios," Kozlov says that certain South and Central American countries give that title to a professional that offers immigration-related legal help. He finds that frequently, individuals seeking to take advantage of immigrants from Central and South American nations will obtain a notary public certification and falsely hold themselves out as authorized to assist with immigration matters. The Illinois Attorney General's website has more information about this type of immigration fraud at

Matthew Hector
Matthew Hector is a senior associate at Woerthwein & Miller.

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