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The recent arrests of a Bluffton man and a Hilton Head Island woman on charges of practicing law without a license demonstrate the vulnerability of immigrants who don't speak English -- even those here legally -- some South Carolina immigration experts say.And they warn Hispanics to beware, especially of those offering legal assistance or help with federal immigration paperwork.
"These types of businesses can interpret the forms or transcribe responses for people, but they can't advise people in how to fill out the forms," said Jim Knight, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. "If you're looking for legal advice and direction on immigration matters, you need to visit a properly licensed attorney."
In Beaufort County, an investigation into a 40-year-old Bluffton man accused of practicing law without a license continued last week, after three people contacted authorities claiming they hired him to help fill out immigration papers. They were instead duped out of thousands of dollars, authorities said.
Miguel Angel Pico, owner of Hispanic Solutions, told investigators he set up the company in 2004 to help local Hispanics file income taxes and assist them with court cases, sometimes by acting as a translator. He turned himself in to Beaufort County Sheriff's Office deputies May 5 and was released on his own recognizance that same day from the county Detention Center.
In an unrelated incident, a Ridgeland couple and a Hardeeville woman told investigators they hired Hilton Head Island resident Flor Chaverri, 47, to help with immigration paperwork but that she failed to either file their forms or falsely signed documents claiming she was a lawyer, according to a Sheriff's Office incident report. Chaverri was arrested April 23 and charged with practicing law without a license, according to the reports.
After talking to the S.C. Bar and the National Bar Attorney Association, investigators determined neither Pico nor Chaverri are members of either association and are not licensed to practice law in South Carolina, according to the reports.
Multiple attempts to reach Pico for comment over the past several weeks were unsuccessful, and Chaverri declined to be interviewed.
Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Cpl. Robin McIntosh said the investigations continue. She could not say if new charges against Pico or Chaverri would be filed. The charges against both will be presented May 20 to the Beaufort County Grand Jury for possible indictment. They could face up to five years in prison or a $5,000 fine if convicted.
<strong>AN UNREPORTED PROBLEM</strong>
Despite new regulations and some increased awareness among Hispanics, this type of fraud often goes unreported, said Craig Dobson, a federal immigration lawyer on Hilton Head Island.
Those looking for help with immigration applications should make sure they hire a licensed attorney, he said.
"A lot of people, if they run into these problems, are afraid of going to the police," Dobson said. "Local authorities have assured me again and again that people won't be prosecuted for their status."
Part of the problem may be cultural.
Many Hispanics turn to "notorios" to help gather the required documentation for immigration applications and for help completing the sometimes confusing paperwork, said Tammy Besherse, an attorney with the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center.
In many Latin American countries, notorios are considered both attorneys and public notaries, and Spanish-speaking clients often feel more comfortable hiring them in the United States because they speak the same language, Besherse said.
"Many Latinos think notorios or notorias are attorneys licensed to practice law here in the U.S., but they're not." she said. "And they're taking advantage of people who are here both legally and illegally. It's becoming prevalent."
In the U.S., the only way to legally practice federal immigration law is to be a licensed attorney in good standing or be approved by the Board of Immigration Appeals as an accredited representative, a long and difficult process, Besherse said.
By law, notorios are able to aid people in collecting the required documentation to apply for visas, such as birth certificates. They also are able to interpret U.S. immigration applications, she said.
But if notorios tell people what to write or which boxes to check, they are considered to be giving legal advice, Besherse said.
"Most notarios never file people's immigration paperwork but instead take peoples' money and leave town," Besherse said.
Because of an increase in notorios and businesses advertising similar services, state legislators added a provision to the S.C. Illegal Immigration Reform Act, passed in June 2008, regulating the services they can offer and how they can advertise.
"There was a concern among lawmakers that many immigration-assistance service businesses were misrepresenting themselves as attorneys," the state's Knight said.
Lee McElveen, a spokeswoman for S.C. Hispanic/Latino Affairs at the state Commission for Minority Affairs, said Hispanics need to become educated about the immigration process.
There's one sure tipoff.
"If someone tells them they can get them legal status for sure, they're no good," McElveen said.