By Timothy H. Bellas
Special to the Saipan Tribune
It has recently been brought to the attention of the CNMI Disciplinary Committee that there are advertisements in the local media and the Internet by persons or entities who are offering services or advice regarding immigration matters in the CNMI community but who are not licensed attorneys or “accredited representatives.”
I write this letter in the interest of protecting members of the public from paying fees to persons who should not be providing legal services and also in order to warn persons who may be providing such services of the potential consequences of their actions.
While the committee realizes that there is an imminent deadline to file appropriate documentation in order to preserve the right to remain in the CNMI, persons needing services or advice should be aware that getting legal advice about an immigration matter should be from a licensed member of the CNMI Bar Association. If you have any doubts about whether the person you are dealing with is a licensed member of the CNMI Bar Association, contact the CNMI Bar Association at telephone number 235-4529.
The only exception to representation by a licensed attorney is representation by an accredited representative of an organization, which has been approved by the Board of Immigration Appeals to provide such services. To determine if you are dealing with such a person you can check the United States Department of Justice website for the “Recognition& Accreditation Program” at http://www.justice.gov/eoir/ra.html. Or you can ask the person you are dealing with to show their BIA approval order. For additional information, you can also check the USCIS website regarding its initiative to combat the unauthorized practice of law at http://tinyurl.com/3cmskxo.
Members of the public should be aware that relying on incorrect advice can cause harm to your application process, in the form of delays and even possible denial. Also dealing with an unlicensed or unaccredited person can cause a financial loss if the work is never completed or if you have to pay an attorney to correct the errors of such a person.
As for those persons who are thinking about offering such services, while it may seem like a good way to make quick money, the process of obtaining an immigration permit, especially for permanent resident status, often requires more than the mere filling out of immigration forms.
Not only does an unlicensed or unaccredited person subject himself or herself to potential liability for mistakes resulting from incorrect advice provided to the applicant, but the unauthorized practice of law can be investigated by the Disciplinary Committee and then referred for prosecution as a civil disciplinary matter to the Superior Court. In addition, the CNMI Legislature has made the unauthorized practice of law a criminal matter, which can be punished by a maximum of one year in jail or a fine of $2,000, or both.
USCIS has recently publicized its efforts to combat the unauthorized practice of law in the immigration area. In connection with those efforts USCIS has defined the unauthorized practice of immigration law as including:
a. Legal assistance to applicants or petitioners in immigrations matters;
b. Charging more than a nominal fee; and
c. Representing yourself as being qualified in legal matters
by persons who are not licensed attorneys or accredited representatives.
Therefore, on behalf of the Disciplinary Committee, we urge members of the public to be careful in selecting a person to represent them in an immigration matter. For those who are offering such immigration services but are not authorized to do so, the penalties for such unauthorized practice of law can be severe.
If you wish to report a problem already experienced in connection with an immigration matter, please contact me or any member of the Disciplinary Committee (Robert T. Torres, vice chair; Janet King, member; Bruce Mailman, member; Sean Frink, member) at 235-4529.
Timothy H. Bellas is chairman of the Disciplinary Committee of the CNMI Bar Association.