Foolish Advice and Dangerous Lack of Distinctions - Articles

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Posted by: Christy Gibson on Sep 6, 2012

By Steve Wilson*

     There is an old saying that a person who represents himself has a fool for a lawyer. However, some political figures are urging undocumented immigrants, who may qualify for the Obama Administration’s increased scope of deferred action relief, to represent themselves.This advice is both foolish and dangerous.

     In early August 2012, a dozen congressmen joined together to warn those who may qualify under the newly expanded scope of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivalsabout “attorneys, sometimes referred to as ‘notarios,’ seeking payment.” Rep. Xavier Becerra declared, without qualification, that “[applicants] don’t need an attorney.”  Senator Dick Durbin and Rep. Luis Gutiérrez also voiced their fears of potential abuses by notarios and attorneys.  Such broad sweeping statements will likely only add to misunderstanding of this new process and ignorance to the potential pitfalls without informed advice from a qualified immigration attorney.

     The term notario often carries a great deal of respect in the Hispanic community (more than attorneys at times). This makes statements from public figures that use the labels attorney and notario interchangeably particularly insensitive.  Of course, it is right to illustrate risks posed by unscrupulous notarios, and sadly a few attorneys, to the estimated 1.7 million undocumented young people who may be eligible for this newly extended relief. However, public figures must also clarify that in this country a notario is not equal to a licensed attorney who is regulated by a strict professional code of ethics and who provides the safety of attorney-client privilege. 

     Immigration attorneys have been at the forefront of articles and TV coverage to highlight the dangers of consulting notarios and attempt to balance Rep. Becerra’s flawed reasoning that legal assistance is unnecessary.  We do a disservice when we permit a public perception to be created that attorneys are equal to or no better than notarios simply because of a few rotten apples.  

     “Hope can be a dangerous thing,” to paraphrase the character, Red, from the movie, Shawshank Redemption.  Sometimes hope can be so earnest that it drowns out reason. For example, a lady came by my office in July to discuss what she had preemptively labeled “Obama’s DREAM Act.”  I pointed out to her this was not the DREAM Act, but an extension of prosecutorial discretion to “defer” from pursuing certain removal cases.  As it happened, the lady was a perfect candidate for deferred action.  However, I wanted to strongly express to her this was not a silver bullet for the many frustrations that dogged her undocumented life.  Nor is it a pathway to citizenship. I also explained to her that if President Obama lost the election in November, there was no guarantee that President Romney would respect the existence of this new prosecutorial no-fly zone.  I was as stark as I could be in talking about the elephant in the room (no pun intended to my Republican friends), and that her name and information would then be on record with the authorities. The lady, however, refused to acknowledge the risks posed by the outcome of the approaching hotly contested election.  She was adamant that she was going to apply for deferred action on August 15, 2012, come hell or high water. 

     It occurred to me that if this smart lady was so fixed on deferred action, regardless of possible consequences, then it would be nearly impossible to explain the impact of those same dangers to an individual a shade slower on the draw.  People so desperate to escape the shadows of undocumented life will likely hand over their hard earned cash to any notario willing to share in smiles of enthusiasm without the least effort to alert their clients to political big picture concerns, let alone have the ability to give advice on the still rather muddy definition of “significant misdemeanor offense.”    

     Accordingly, advice that discounts wholesale the need to consult an attorney when applying for deferred action is both foolish and dangerous. Attorneys are not a superfluous expense, but the guardians are necessary for its success. Their participation will decrease the number of opportunities available for the unregulated notarios.  Furthermore, the statements of people who should know better, that attorneys and notarios are the same, potentially exposes the entire undocumented community to false assumptions that there may be no need for a lawyer in other situations, too.


*Steve Wilson is a solo practitioner in Memphis, Tennessee, at The Steve Wilson Firm. His areas of practice include employment, small business issues, personal injury, immigration and family law. He is licensed to practice in both Tennessee and California. As a Welsh immigrant, it is the field of immigration law practice that Steve finds the most fulfilling way to help out fellow newcomers to America and hopefully helps make their lives here as great as they dreamed it could be.  Steve can be contacted at