In California (and elsewhere), immigrants have long been targeted by predatory lawyers and consultants who exploit their clients’ lack of English and status as noncitizens, charging exorbitant fees and in some cases failing to do the work expected of them. With dramatic changes to immigration laws looming in Washington, some states are already anticipating an increase in scams and victims.
In California, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) and Assemblyman Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), with the help of the California Bar Assn., have introduced legislation to protect immigrants from unscrupulous lawyers who commit fraud. That’s a good idea, given that immigration fraud is among the top 10 issues the L.A. County Department of Consumer Affairs deals with.
Unfortunately, the bill fails to adequately address the problem and should be shelved, at least for now.
AB 1159 would require immigration attorneys to deposit clients’ retainers into trust accounts and would prohibit them from collecting any further payments until their cases are filed with federal authorities. Additionally, it would prohibit those attorneys from soliciting clients or taking money to begin the legalization process before Congress approves immigration reform legislation.
Those provisions are fine, but the bill would also require attorneys to carry malpractice coverage or post bonds of $100,000. That sounds like a sensible approach until you consider that many lone practioners — reputable lawyers, not scammers — would be forced to increase their fees dramatically to pay for such bonds and other mandates imposed under the bill. That, in turn, would likely drive up the cost of legitimate legal representation and push more immigrants into the arms of notarios, who are not lawyers and who too often promise to provide legal assistance at discount rates but end up filing frivolous paperwork damaging to cases.
The bill also requires attorneys to provide non-English speaking clients with official translations of any contracts. Surely, clients should be informed of what they are signing in a language they understand. But that can be achieved in far less expensive ways. Another onerous provision would require attorneys to provide clients written status reports every two months detailing what work has been done. Lawyers are obligated to keep clients informed, and most do. But requiring written updates would only drive up costs.
There is still time, however, for lawmakers to rethink their approach. Congress is unlikely to approve an immigration bill before October, if at all. And any new law is unlikely to kick in for at least a year. The Legislature ought to use that time to devise new legislation that protects immigrants without driving up fees prohibitively.
In the meantime, if the state bar and the Legislature are concerned about new scams, they ought to consider far more limited legislation that bans attorneys from receiving fees in anticipation of immigration reform.