Some of you may have heard of this service, many of you probably have not. H&R Block (yes, the tax form people) had set up a service to help immigrants fill in immigration forms. They would not give actual legal advice, just help complete the forms. The American Immigration Lawyer’s Association (AILA) announced, after discussing the program with H&R Block, that it would be shut down. The reason is the crossing of the line from just filling in forms to getting into the unlawful practice of law (UPL).
Reading articles about these events, it seems that some people feel that this is a needed service and that AILA was more interested in protecting its members from competition than it was from protecting immigrants from getting hurt by such a service. After all, helping someone fill in forms is not the same thing as practicing law or giving legal advice. I, however, disagree with this take on it. AILA has spent a considerable amount of time fighting against issues caused by people providing this same service, namely “notaries”. “Notaries” often pray on Hispanics, and advertise themselves as assistants to help complete immigration forms – ofter charging much, much less than an actual attorney. The problem is that many of these “notaries” in helping people fill in the forms, do cross the line and start giving legal advice, and mostly bad legal advice. For example, certain questions, such as questions regarding criminal background, require knowledge of what types of offense should be included and should not. Many times “notaries” will give such advice, telling a client to either include certain things or to exclude certain things. Other times they may tell them that answering certain questions, certain ways will not hurt their chances for getting a green card, when it very well may. All of this is legal advice, and if it is incorrect (and most “notaries” do not know the law) it could affect that person’s ability to immigrate to the US for the rest of their life. If you visit the AILA website you will see many stories of immigrants hurt by “notaries”, and it is these types of things that AILA is seeking to stop when they fight against such programs.
H&R Block was correct that such a service is needed, and may have been able to implement the service in such a way that they would not cross the line into the Unlawful Practice of Law, however I tend to doubt it. I do not doubt it because I think H&R Block is an evil company, I doubt it because it is, in my view, almost impossible to help someone complete immigration forms without giving legal advice. The immigration process is so complex at this point, and the forms so badly worded, that without such advice it is very difficult to accurately complete the forms, especially if there are any issues that need to be discussed (criminal, tax, etc.). I think that there may be better ways to provide such services to intending immigrants at similar price levels without the risks posed by non-lawyers providing such advice. There are many immigration organizations that will provide these services with volunteer lawyers, etc. to those who cannot afford attorney services. I myself have volunteered in such programs, and can say first hand that at least 80%, if not more, of the people I helped needed legal advice to complete their forms. I applaud AILA for working to ensure that immigrants are provided good advice.