Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Senator Luz Robles listens to Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine M. Durham as she gives the State of the Judiciary address on the opening day of the Utah State Legislature Monday, Jan. 23, 2012 in the Utah State Capitol.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Luz Robles wants to clamp down on predatory practices of "immigration consultants" who she says are defrauding refugees and immigrants of thousands of dollars.

Robles, D-Salt Lake, is sponsoring SB144 to require consultants who are not attorneys to register with the state Division of Consumer Protection, undergo criminal background checks and post bonds. The bill, which was introduced Monday in the Senate, also creates a complaint process for people who have been defrauded.

Robles said she receives an average of three phone calls a week from people who have been taken advantage of by "immigration consultants" they hired to help them fill out immigration forms or answer other questions.

When the consultants have provided bad advice or not performed the service for which they were hired, some people turn to immigration attorneys. "By then, they've already spent $5,000," Robles said.

Immigration attorney Aaron Tarin said there are at least three businesses down the street from his West Valley City law offices that offer assistance with filling out immigration forms. He said Robles' bill is needed "primarily because so many people are being taken advantage of in this community."

"Not everyone is able to afford our services, although we try to reach out when we can," he said. "That's created a large underground black market of people who try to offer these services. The incidence of fraud is just tremendous."

People who get faulty advice might fill out documents incorrectly or they may attempt to obtain public services for which they do not qualify.

"By the time they get to us, they don't have any money left. The damage has been done. They end up in removal processes or worse, deported," he said.

Some people who provide these services are notary publics, which can be confusing for people from Latin American countries, where a notario publico is a highly sophisticated attorney. In Utah, a notary public can only witness the signing of legal documents.

"They take advantage of the play on words because here; anyone can be a notary," Tarin said. "That's another reason there's got to be some control there."

Denise Arce, owner of Arce & Associates, which provides limited immigration services and translation services, said she believes the bill "is a very good idea."

Arce said she has encountered people who paid "immigration consultants" for work that was not performed.

"They literally haven't done the paperwork or the companies have ripped them off or given them bad advice," she said.

Arce is careful to explain to clients that she is not an attorney, she said. She frequently refers clients with complicated immigration histories to attorneys.

She formerly worked for an attorney and learned the proper way to fill out forms to apply for residency for a spouse or child or assisting people who need to renew their visas.

"I'll help them fill out the paperwork at a lower rate, something that's affordable to the customer," she said.

Arce said people who provide these services should be treated like tax preparers, who must obtain a certificate from the state to off that service. Otherwise, innocent people seeking immigration assistance may fall prey to unscrupulous "consultants."

"There are people who will take advantage of their circumstances. It's a vulnerable group of people. They don't know who they can trust."

Robles said she recognizes that some people who offer these services are well-intentioned and can provide competent services.

"I hope this is not seen as an attack on honest people trying to provide services that are needed," she said.

But the state cannot turn a blind eye to the "predatory practices" of people who are not reputable, she said.

In addition to notaries, "immigration consulting" services are sometimes offered by one-stop shops that also sell money orders, prepare taxes and provide translation services. 

Tarin estimates there are hundreds of businesses that provide immigration consulting services in the Salt Lake Valley alone. Consultants who fill out documents incorrectly or fraudulently also hurt the integrity of the immigration system itself, he said.

Robles said lawmakers in California are also attempting to pass laws to regulate "consultants" who have defrauded clients.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com