Hoping that she could quickly qualify for US residency, Izabela Dechnik, a Polish cleaning woman, gave $2,000 to a woman named Adela Holzer, who claimed that she could expedite the process with the help of a senator in Washington D.C.
Dechnik was not the only person to whom Holzer made this promise.
"She always said that this was the senator who was going to grant us residency," Pascual Diez, who gave Holzer more than $5,000, told Hoy.
Though Holzer promised "fast track service," years passed and not one of the immigrants who paid Holzer received a green card. Holzer, very simply, was conning them. In 2002, she was convicted of grand larceny and fraud for stealing a total of $50,000 from her immigrant clients.
Stories such as this are common in immigrant communities, which is why the government is trying to do something about it.
In June the City Council unanimously passed a new bill that would require immigration assistant service providers to give a written contract to their clients, and would prevent them from making statements promising government action or suggesting that they have special influence. The New York State legislature passed a similar bill. Both only await the signatures of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki, respectively, to be turned into law.
"Assisting immigrants is a thriving industry in certain areas, and one that for long has been left unchecked," said State Senator Frank Padavan, who had introduced the bill in the State Senate. With these new laws, immigrant service providers will be regulated for the first time.
There is agreement of course that scam artists should not be tolerated. But there is sharp disagreement over the role of immigrant assistance service providers, some questioning whether the new laws won't legitimize an occupation that shouldn't really exist at all.
Many immigration service providers call themselves "notarios," which means lawyers in Spanish, when they are, in fact, just a notary public. The new laws will require that they post a sign stating that they are not attorneys and not allowed to give legal advice.
"How would you feel if you were sick and going to see a doctor who has a sign hanging in the office saying that 'I am not a doctor,' said Eugene Glicksman, chairman of the County Lawyers Immigration and nationality committee. "What these bills say is that we are going to let anybody represent immigrants."
According to the federal law, only attorneys and accredited individuals or non-profit organizations can represent immigrants. Under the new law, immigration service providers can transcribe responses to government agencies; translate instructions and questions from forms, assist in getting documentation. They are prohibited from giving legal advice to clients.
Proponents of the bills argue that regulating, instead of outlawing, immigration service providers, allows some room for legitimate business to exist.
"While there are some bad actors who have been ripping off immigrants, at the same time there are some immigrant consultants who do play some helpful and legitimate role to immigration communities," said Mark Lewis of New York Immigration Coalition.
But lawyers said it is difficult for immigrant assistance service providers to avoid giving legal advice. Even the selection of the forms is in effect the practice of law, they argue, because one has to understand the law in order to pick the right application.
"If people need legal advice, they should seek out the services of an immigration attorney," Padavan said.
But for many immigrants, hiring a lawyer could cost an entire month's wages. "Many immigrants chose to go to immigration consultants because they provide low cost services," said Lewis, who added that "some of the notarios understand the law better than lawyers."
Some immigrants questioned why they should pay a lump sum of money to a lawyer to simply filling out forms. "I have been filing things myself without a lawyer," said Christelle Arcostanzo, an immigrant from France.
"There is no such thing as just filling out the form," Claudia Slovinsky of the Association Bar of New York told the New York Law Journal. “That form is tip of a big, huge iceberg.”
If Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki approve the measures as expected, lawyer groups said they would consider constitutional challeges on the ground that these bills go against federal law.
"These bills do not require immigration assistants to have even the most minimal knowledge, training or experience," Glicksman said. "I would not be surprised if there were litigation on this."
An immigrant from Bangkok, Thailand, Chaleampon Ritthichai is the editor of The Citizen.