I have worked on several mass immigration registrations over the last three decades practicing immigration law at the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN). There was the Reagan Amnesty of 1986 when three million people applied for permanent residence; the Salvadoran Temporary Protected Status (TPS) programs with a half million applicants; and the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act of the late 1990s. All of these programs brought floods of applicants, but all of them will pale in comparison to the legalization program that will be embodied in immigration reform later this year.
While it is too early to predict if immigration reform will actually pass sometime this year, I think it is important for me to address immigration lawyers before the first clients cross their doorways. If reform passes, these attorneys will have hundreds, no, thousands of undocumented people begging them to take their money to help them apply for legalization. We saw this happen on a small scale over the summer during the Deferred Action program and the picture of attorney behavior was not always pretty.
I know many immigration lawyers who were happy to help young DREAMers file Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) applications for their usual hourly fee. They made money and did good at the same time. Many of them volunteered at free DACA clinics to help out young people who could not afford even the reasonable fees that these lawyers charge. But there were other lawyers who increased their fees by 400% or even 500%. Some vulnerable young people were charged $2,500 for a service that took two hours of the lawyer’s time. This price gouging is unconscionable and immoral.
Lawyers study for many years to earn their license and the good ones work hard for their clients. They are entitled to their pay, but they are not entitled to exploit the need for legal help by impoverished people for lawyerly self-enrichment. If immigration reform passes, community organizations should receive reports of unconscionable fees by lawyers and denounce the attorneys charging them.
Good lawyers understand that the legalization program envisioned in immigration reform is a long-term process. It will include the filing of an initial application, renewals, an application for permanent residence, and an application for citizenship. The lawyer who builds a long-term relationship with his or her clients will fare better in the long run than the money-hungry attorney who tries to make a killing in the first year. Once tagged as an exploiter, he or she will never recover the respect of the immigrant community.
I’ll write more about this potential problem in coming months, as well as ways immigrants applying for legalization can protect themselves.