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New law bans advanced fees
for immigration reform work

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

Attorneys and immigration consultants are prohibited from collecting money for services related to federal immigration reform until Congress acts under a State Bar-sponsored law that went into effect last month.

The consumer-protection legislation, authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, was introduced in response to reports from law enforcement that the federal debate over immigration reform was prompting scams aimed at undocumented immigrants.

Taking action to protect those at risk of being preyed upon was a top priority this year for outgoing State Bar President Patrick M. Kelly and incoming President Luis J. Rodriguez. The bar worked with the American Immigration Lawyers Association and other stakeholders on the final draft of AB 1159.

"We in California are fortunate to have bipartisan leadership that has come together to protect a vulnerable community," Rodriguez said.

The legislation went into effect upon Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature Oct. 5. In addition to prohibiting advanced fees for services related to the federal reform effort, the law also:

  • Requires attorneys and immigration consultants to account for any money already accepted for immigration reform services and either refund the money or deposit it in a client trust account.
  • Requires attorneys to inform clients receiving immigration reform act services where they can report complaints. A notice for attorneys to use has been posted on the State Bar’s website and is also translated into other languages, including Spanish and Chinese.
  • Increases the amount of bond that immigration consultants must carry from $50,000 to $100,000 as of July 1, 2014.
  • Prohibits the use of the term “notario,” which has been misconstrued as someone who is qualified to give legal advice.
  • Provides that a person who violates the ban on the use of the term “notario” is subject to a civil penalty of up to $1,000 a day for each violation.

A second State Bar-backed consumer protection measure was approved by the Legislature but vetoed by Brown. AB 888, authored by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, would have allowed the bar to collect fines and penalties against those engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.

Brown’s veto message said existing enforcement mechanisms against the unauthorized practice of law are adequate. The Attorney General and local prosecutors have the power to bring civil and criminal actions with fines. The State Bar can seek civil injunctions.

The bar had argued that without the threat of sanctions, the targets of the bar’s civil injunctions are able to evade the bar by changing the name and location of their fraudulent operations.

State Bar CEO Joseph Dunn said the bar will work to address the governor’s concerns and reintroduce the legislation next year. Also, the Board of Trustees at its Oct. 13 meeting authorized the creation of a board committee to develop policy for the bar’s efforts to stop the unauthorized practice of law.

In addition, the State Bar’s annual fee bill was approved and signed by the governor. Active lawyers will be charged $420 and inactive members will be charged $145, with the ability to deduct up to $40 that goes toward funding various voluntary activities. The bills will be mailed in December and are due Feb. 3.

Attorneys are urged to make sure the bar has their correct address by looking up their online profile. Changes may be made online by going to My State Bar Profile.

At the request of the State Bar, the legislation also allows the bar to intercept state tax refunds to collect unpaid fines and penalties.