We have seen an alarming increase in notarios and other scammers targeting Ukrainians on social media. USCIS has also seen an increase in scams and predatory behavior targeting individuals from Ukraine and those who may be considered for parole under the Uniting for Ukraine. USCIS recently sent a communication asking potential sponsors and beneficiaries to be cautious of scams and rumors that exploit victims, create uncertainty, or spread misinformation. 

In addition, we are seeing non-attorneys providing legal advice to Ukrainians on social media and in other forums. Some of this advice is well-meaning, but often it creates confusion. At times, this advice can be erroneous. Of concern is the public’s presumptions about the knowledge of the person giving the advice, as people may put undue confidence in a non-attorney who appears to have expertise in immigration matters when, in fact, the person does not have the proper foundation of legal training in immigration matters — or a license to practice law. 

In light of these growing problems popping up in multiple venues, below is some guidance from the American Bar Association (ABA) on “Avoiding the Unauthorized Practice of Immigration Law” as well as resources from government websites to report unauthorized practice. We hope this information helps people 1) recognize and report those who try to take advantage of Ukrainians seeking immigration advice or services, and 2) be aware of what is considered unauthorized practice of immigration law based on the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and State Bar rules.

Below are some relevant excerpts from the American Bar Association’s article and other resources. The full article can be found here: Avoiding the Unauthorized Practice of Immigration Law (americanbar.org). A list of avenues to report immigration scams, fraud, and unauthorized practice of immigration law can be found at the bottom.

What is unauthorized practice of the law?

“Unauthorized practice of immigration law” or “UPIL,” has been a chronic problem for decades. Often, it manifests in a non-attorney who establishes a business to offer immigration and other legal services. This type of unscrupulous practitioner is commonly referred to as a “notario”.

While most can readily identify the notario scenario as the unauthorized practice of law, seemingly innocent assistance by community members can also fall into the unauthorized practice of immigration law category. A common example is “word of mouth” referrals to “someone in the neighborhood” who knows about immigration forms and can talk to people about their cases. This individual, admired in the community and described as a good person, meets with non-citizen community members to guide them on what actions to take to resolve their immigration matters. He listens to their problem, instructs on which immigration form or process they should utilize, completes the form, possibly even suggesting specific answers and may even advise on what they could expect. 

Despite his standing as a de facto consultant to the community, this individual is not a licensed attorney authorized to practice law nor is he legally authorized to practice immigration law. Despite having the best of intentions and potentially a desire to help someone, this individual is also engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. Consumers who seek the advice of this type of consultant are in the vulnerable position of placing blind trust in a person who may not understand the intricacies of immigration law and may damage their case or expose them to risk.

The Model Rules of Professional Conduct guide the legal practice of lawyers in the United States. In addition, many states have specific laws relating to the unauthorized practice of law. Although the regulation of law practice applies exclusively to attorneys, non-attorneys without special authorization who are engaging in activities that equate to the practice of law are doing so in violation and are also committing the unauthorized practice of law

What is considered “practice of the law”?

Some states define “practice of law” as: performing any legal service for another person, firm or corporation, with or without compensation; preparing court documents; assisting in legal work; or advising another person, firm or corporation about their legal rights. 

The practice of immigration law is defined by federal regulation as an “act or acts of any person appearing in any case, either in person or through the preparation or filing of any brief or other document, paper, application, or petition on behalf of another person or client before or with the Department of Homeland Security or any immigration judge, or the Board of Immigration Appeals. Activities such as advising the consumer of which form to select or coaching on how to respond to form questions is the practice of law since these activities involve legal analysis and advice.

If a nonlawyer helps a person fill out a legal form, it may be considered practice of the law if the assistance involves helping them understand what needs to be filled in, advising them of the consequences of completing the form in a certain manner, or otherwise providing legal advice concerning the completion of the form. Additionally, advising a person that a particular legal form is appropriate for the person’s legal needs is legal advice that may not be given by a nonlawyer.

Preparation, or practice, does not include “the lawful functions of a notary public or service consisting solely of assistance in whose remuneration, if any, is nominal and who does not hold himself out as qualified in legal matters or in immigration and naturalization procedure.” For example, it is permissible for a notary to notarize documents, translate documents, arrange for photographs and fingerprints to be taken or engage in other similar activity and not be involved in the practice of law. Additionally, a notary, or other individual, could transcribe information onto an immigration form. 

Who can provide legal advice and legal services?
There are a number of categories of authorized individuals who may engage in the practice of immigration law and represent others in immigration matters as detailed in 8 C.F.R. §1292.1. This list includes attorneys, law students and law graduates under the supervision of a licensed attorney, reputable individuals, accredited representatives, and accredited officials. 

Sometimes, individuals or businesses represent that they can provide legal services or help to prepare legal documents for members of the public even though they are not lawyers. They may be engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. Only licensed attorneys and others designated by state law may provide legal services or prepare or help prepare legal documents for another person. 

What are the consequences of unauthorized practice of the law?

State Bars are authorized to investigate and act on reports of the unauthorized practice of law. State Bars may ask the courts for an injunction to prohibit a person or business from engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.

In some states, the unauthorized practice of law is illegal because a person who is not trained and licensed as an attorney may seriously harm the interests of a member of the public by providing incompetent legal services. Even if a non-lawyer does legal work for a relative, friend, or another person without charging them any money, such work may be in violation of state laws because the potential for harm still exists. A paralegal or other non-lawyer may only perform work constituting the practice of law if it is under the supervision and at the direction of a licensed attorney in that state.

In some states, the unauthorized practice of law is a misdemeanor criminal offense that may be prosecuted by the local district attorney. Additionally, accepting fees for unauthorized practice of law may involve other crimes, such as false pretense, that are felonies.

Engaging in unauthorized practice of law may also expose a person to potential civil liability to a person harmed by the unauthorized practice including potential claims of fraud or unfair and deceptive trade practices.

How can consumers and attorneys report a non-attorney engaged in unauthorized practice of law?

Report the individual in writing to the appropriate State Bar. A full listing of State Bars can be found here: State Bar List (generalbar.com)

How can consumers and attorneys report scams and immigration fraud?

Report immigration fraud and abuse to USCIS here: https://www.uscis.gov/scams-fraud-and-misconduct/report-fraud

To report a website or social media account that claims to be affiliated with USCIS, send an email to [email protected].

Report scams and notario fraud to the Federal Trade Commission by calling 877-FTC-HELP or by visiting ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

For a full list of other resources and ways to report immigration scams or fraud, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s Notario Fraud page at Notario Fraud | consumer.gov.

You can also file a complaint online and report it to your local or state authorities. To find a list of state authorities, visit the USCIS Scams and Immigration Fraud page and scroll down to “Where to Report Immigration Scams by State.”