Published: February 11, 2013

By the end of the summer, if not sooner, it is very possible Congress will act to provide undocumented individuals an avenue toward legalizing their status in the U.S. Exactly what the terms or requirements of such legislation will be, or whether for certain a measure will be enacted at all, is unknown. But, if there will be a new law, it is guaranteed, non-attorney, “immigration consultants” will be popping up all over the place to provide a “service” in helping foreign nationals negotiate the process Congress lays out.

Immigration consultants charge a fee to answer questions, complete forms and otherwise advise immigrants on their rights and the proper way to complete this or that procedure. The problem is that for most of what consultants purport to do, the consultant is likely breaking the law. More specifically, only lawyers are licensed to give legal advice and guide individuals through a particular legal process. And when consultants start crossing the line between completing a form and giving legal advice, trouble invariably ensues.

Speaking of which, one Chicago area “immigration consultant” in the news these days is Teresita Zarrabian. Zarrabian, a non-attorney, has been running an immigration consultancy out of the northern Suburbs of Chicago for more than the past decade, and from what I have seen, countless numbers of her clients have ended up in immigration hot water because of her “guidance” or “consulting” services. Her business plan seems to have hit a major road block this past week, however, as a federal grand jury in Chicago handed down an indictment against Zarrabian and an accomplice. The indictment charges Zarrabian of allegedly conspiring to arrange sham marriages for the purpose of conferring lawful U.S. immigration status to her clients, some of whom paid Zarrabian between $8,000 and $15,000.

I wrote about Zarrabian and her “consulting business” many years ago in this Forum, in an article entitled, “The Misadventures of a Skokie Immigration Consultant”. Since that time, I have watched the trajectory her business model has taken, and news of this week’s indictment comes as no surprise. If convicted, Zarrabian and her accomplice face significant jail time, likely in the range of 5-15 years.

Speaking of jail time, another Chicago area immigration consultant in the news recently is Tahawwur Rana who just last month was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Rana, an alleged terrorist, was convicted in 2011 for providing support to the group that carried out the 2008 Mumbai terrorist massacre that killed 160 people and for backing the unhatched plot to attack a Danish newspaper that featured cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

This is not to say that there are not well intended folks out there who honestly want to assist foreign nationals in completing a form, or providing some non-attorney service. The problem is that most of those in this business (and it is a business, to be sure) are not well intended. And problems comes into play when that “consultant” has to answer questions about the ramifications of a particular filing, or the down side of proceeding with a filing, as the answer to questions like these involve legal advice – advice non-attorneys are prohibited from providing.

Immigration consultants, or notarios (as they are known in some Spanish speaking communities), have no official certification to prepare immigration-related documentation or to dispense advice. If something goes wrong, there is no license for them to lose. And only if the victimized party is brave enough to approach the police and lodge a fraud or “unauthorized practice of law” charge will the offending party face any consequences for their actions.

When immigration consultants give the wrong advice, sell a fantasy story or just plain take their victim’s money without advice or a story, the undocumented (or visa overstay) victim usually is afraid to complain. They do not want to complain to their family, probably because they are embarrassed about having been swindled. And for sure, they do not want to complain to the police since, in their mind, any law enforcement agency learning of their illegal alien status will certainly see to it they are deported.

While attorneys can lose their licenses, and consequently their means of making a living, immigration consultants cannot. The State of Illinois’ Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission can strip an attorney of their right to call themselves an attorney, and practice law. No parallel agency exists to regulate immigration consultants, but for a local police department or Federal criminal autorities. Therefore the immigration consultant does not have, and does not need a license. And because their victim would sooner jump off a 20-story building before reporting the fraud perpetrated, the immigration consultant has no fear.

Here is my advice. When dealing with an immigration law matter, schedule a confidential consultation with a licensed attorney who has a reputation for honesty and zealous advocacy and who focuses on immigration matters only. To be sure, there are many lawyers to choose from, but the prospective client must engage in careful due diligence in making their choice, since most of those who hold themselves out as experts in the field of immigration law are anything but. From there, you may not even end up having to hire the attorney – either because the attorney advises against you facilitating a process, or because the process may be so simple that the preparation or filing of the paperwork can be accomplished without attorney assistance. If the attorney’s opinion sounds far afield, seek a second opinion, especially if large sums of money are being requested. In sum, be careful out there.

PUBLISHED February 11, 2013 – “IMMIGRATION LAW FORUM” Copyright © 2013, By Law Offices of Richard Hanus, Chicago, Illinois