Five Tulsa college students split up the numbers to cold call lawyers claiming to help immigrants file for the latest administrative relief.
In one afternoon, they found two disbarred attorneys, one "notario" claiming the ability to do legal work, an attorney charging $2,000 for an application that doesn't yet exist and several more with no idea of President Barack Obama's recent announcement to shift policy aimed to help undocumented youth.
Warnings have been issued about people offering unauthorized immigration services, calling themselves "notarios" or immigration consultants. A notario is considered an attorney in much of Mexico but does not carry the same educational requirements in the U.S.
The checks started after members of DREAM Act Oklahoma received calls from attorneys wanting referrals.
"One guy told us to 'Send all the students my way,' " said student Tracey Medina. "That really got us wondering how many of these people are legitimate immigration attorneys. We are concerned about what facts are being put out there, and we want to find out what they are saying."
DREAM Act Oklahoma is a grass-roots organization dedicated to advocating for the rights of undocumented youth. It is led and composed of mostly college students and is affiliated with the national DREAM Act organization.
The group has been hosting forums and promoting information related to the recent "deferred action" option available to youth by the use of presidential powers.
Obama's latest directive will allow a specific segment of people younger than 30 to apply for two-year work permits if they have met educational and background requirements. The application will not be ready until August.
The action contains some elements of the DREAM Act, which is pending in Congress and was first introduced to lawmakers more than a decade ago.
In a call to the office of a Tulsa attorney who prominently advertises in immigrant communities, student Kasey Hugheart posed as an immigrant:
"I'm an undocumented immigrant and think I qualify for Obama's latest announcement and wanted to see what it would cost for you to help me," Hugheart said.
"We only deal with the DREAM Act and immigration," said a person answering the phone.
"I know, this is about immigration," she said. "How much will it cost for an attorney to help me file for it?"
"It will be $500 down for the consultation and $1,500 to submit the form," the person said.
After hanging up, the students shook their heads.
"Well, he's on the blacklist," Hugheart said.
"How can he claim to get the DREAM Act when it doesn't even exist?" Medina said. "And there isn't even an application yet for Obama's deferred action."
The students called attorneys found online, in phone books or newspapers and on fliers claiming to specialize in immigration.
Students often needed to explain what Obama's directive was or define terms commonly known in the immigrant communities, such as "Dreamer," referring to youth who would qualify for the legislative act if it passed.
Although the group found a handful of questionable attorneys and a few possible scams, there were some valid professionals.
After getting off the phone with a lawyer known for his immigration work, the student gave a thumbs up.
"The attorney took my call and explained the application wasn't ready," said the student, who asked not be to identified because he is undocumented. "He would not charge for a consultation, explained the deferred action and said to wait. He also used all the right terms. Maybe we should call him back and tell him he passed our test?"
The group took its results to an experienced and trusted immigration attorney, who checked the list with the state bar association and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. That's where it was discovered some had been disbarred, disciplined or were not even attorneys.
Hugheart said the group will support those who are legitimate but will keep their list when asked for referrals by word-of-mouth.
At a forum Sunday, she warned the crowd to watch for unscrupulous lawyers and people making guarantees on results. The forum attracted immigrants, advocates and people wanting information to help friends.
It also attracted a few attorneys and interpreters handing out business cards.
"You should not be paying for this," Hugheart said. "There should not be any prices out there for this. It is in the information process. An attorney should not be asking for money. They can take your name and number and call you back when the application is ready."
Until the application is ready, it is unknown what type of services will be needed from an immigration attorney. Groups such as the National Immigrant Youth Alliance recommend having a criminal history reviewed to identify possible obstacles.
Tulsa has two federally certified organizations working with immigrants - Catholic Charities and the YWCA Multicultural Center.
Also, people are encouraged to check the state bar for an attorney's status, get references and compare fees among attorneys. The American Immigration Lawyers Association also has a search of its membership online.
Hugheart said the group's chief concern is to prevent vulnerable people from being preyed upon.
"This was something we had to do," she said. "The public depends on the information being put out there, and Spanish-language resources are limited. We take this as our responsibility for the public - to put knowledge out there to help."
Where to call locally for questions
2450 N. Harvard Ave., 918-949-HOPE (4673), tulsaworld.com/catholiccharities
YWCA Multicultural Center:
8145 E. 17th St., 918-663-0377, tulsaworld.com/ywcatulsa
Dream Act Oklahoma has a Facebook page with information at tulsaworld.com/dreamfacebook
For the American Immigration Lawyers Association, go to tulsaworld.com/aila
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376
Original Print Headline: Students try to ID legit immigration attorneys
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