Free Legal Clinics Are a Risky Place for the Undocumented

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Free Legal Clinics Are a Risky Place for the Undocumented

If you read the propaganda published by non-profits who cater to immigrants, one could easily infer that these organizations are the go-to place to receive legal assistance on how to remain in the United States legally. This is especially true if you come from a place where lawyers are part of a corrupt legal system, and you are ignorant of the U.S. legal system. To make matters worse, U.S. Immigration Law is exceedingly complex and it takes attorneys years to master the nuances involved whenever one contemplates filing an application that, if denied, could result in the banishment of the petitioner.

When these non-profits announce a “free” legal clinic that will allegedly benefit thousands of immigrants, many take advantage of the opportunity to vilify immigration attorneys. These groups constantly cite to tales of a cadre of unscrupulous immigration lawyers and notarios who fail to deliver promised services and charge exaggerated fees. In Latin America a "notario" is a high-powered attorney who occupies a position similar to a judge in the United States. In the U.S., Hispanic notaries balk immigrants of their hard-earned cash and rob dreams by promising legal work they are not authorized to perform and often file applications that result in deportation for the applicant. The nonprofits equate these fraudsters to lawyers in a groundless campaign to vilify highly-trained immigration lawyers without ever citing specific cases involving real attorneys. Of course, if these stories were in fact true, there would be a record of it courtesy of a state bar disciplinary opinion.

Two such local non-profits who have engaged on bogus campaigns to encourage public mistrust of the legal profession are Conexion Americas/Casa Azafran and TIRRC (Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Coalition). When President Obama came to Nashville to decree his executive action on national tv, he stood next to a gleaming Renata Soto as he stated that no-one needs to hire an immigration attorney or a notario to file for DAPA. Of course, DAPA is being litigated at the Supreme Court and has put the brakes on a planned wide-spread drive to process applications by these non-profits.

TIRRC, a statewide coalition that practices immigration law by using volunteers is not shy about bashing the same lawyers asked to provide volunteer legal advice at clinics. Ironically, TIRRC seeks donations from the American Immigration Lawyers Association as well as time from its’ members at TIRRC clinics. This writer has a long history of re-viewing botched applications prepared by volunteer lawyers who knew nothing about immigration law at TIRRC clin-ics. USA Today reports in a carefully-honed offensive tone that TIRRC reported that “one immigrant spent $18,000 in application and attorney fees just to get a green card”. Of course, no names or specific information was given. As of this writing, TIRRC has a video posted on its website (in Spanish) depicting immigration lawyers and notarios as fraudsters. The image under the tag line depicts an immigration lawyer being handed a stack of $100 bills. The mes-sage was posted when immigration reform was pending and specifically offered legal advice telling people not to seek legal representation from attorneys. This advertisement was published before TIRRC obtained an immigration representative authorized to handle limited legal matters on a low-cost basis.

The Criticism Directed at Immigration Attorneys is that They Charge Money for Legal Services

Most Americans understand that lawyers cost money. The cost of a legal education is over $100,000 on the average. Taking the dreaded bar exam and learning the most complex legal area takes time, a lot of time. Opening and maintaining a law practice is very expensive and most people understand that. These non-profits target the unsophisticated and uneducated by oversimplifying the legal processes they seek to participate in. They spread the word that “free lawyers” are on hand without mentioning that the lawyers participating are more likely than not inexperienced in immigration law and are there for a very limited amount of time. If doctors or accountants charge fees, then why is it so bad that specialized lawyers also be compensated for their education and services? Why do these organizations want foreign nationals to believe effective legal representation should be free? They want to get potential applicants into the front door where they are led to believe that a quick and easy form needs to be filled out.

Free Legal Clinics Are a Risky Place For the Undocumented

The main staff at these clinics are paid employees who seek volunteers who, albeit are well-intentioned lawyers who recklessly offer “advice” they do not understand. Many experienced immigration lawyers are too afraid to set foot in a high-volume and chaotic situation where one missed detail could result in deportation of the applicant. For many, deportation could result in death-especially for those seeking asylum. Many churches and clinics consider the process nothing more than just filling out forms. However, whether to choose one form of relief over another, or whether to file any application in the first place is a complex question. For someone who has ever had any criminal history, the laws are notoriously complex and harsh. Immigration and state laws conflict. The decision to convince thousands of people to come out of the shadows and file for temporary relief, such as DACA, is reckless without individualized warnings to the applicants that executive action could one day be reversed by a court or a subsequent administration. If such actions are reversed, an applicant would be exposed to immediate identification and deportation. It is doubtful that a mass sign-up for such relief included an analysis of defenses to deportation. A cattle-call is not conducive to a proper review of an intending immigrants entire family, immigration and criminal history and most experienced lawyers see the risks are not out-weighed by the “benefit” of a quick and free solution. Free legal clinics are a risky place for the undocumented.

The Majority of All Recent Deportees Were Not Represented By Attorneys

Recent reports show that the majority of immigrants who were deported were unrepresented by an attorney. Of the more than 18, 607 recent deportation orders of Central American women and children, 88% were unrepresented. The number of those ordered removed in this group was 16, 307. A recent study found that 73% of represented unaccompanied minor children were successful in immigration court compared the 15% who were unrepresented. These cases involve refugees fleeing extreme violence.


The sponsors of mass-assemblies of inexperienced lawyers, the uninformed and vulnerable applicants are doing a great disservice to all. By concealing malevolent motives in their propaganda, they perpetuate the notion that the U.S. legal system is as corrupt as the systems many of these applicants fled before coming to the United States. By showing utter contempt for experienced legal professionals and by deliberately misleading the public, these groups need to re-think their strategy before the word gets out in the very same community they pretend to serve. Of course, by the time the word gets out about the risks of attending these clinics it will be too late for many.
For those who simply believed that immigration attorneys could not help in their removal proceedings, they might be facing death if they fall into the hands of ICE under the current raids and enforcement priorities.


a) President Obama Remarks on Immigration

Attorney Sean|Lewis About the Author

Abogado Sean Lewis is a Nashville Immigration Lawyer who practices family-based and re-moval defense before the immigration courts. He is the Chair of the Immigration Law Section for the Tennessee Bar Association and former Chair of the Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee of the TBA. Mr. Lewis is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and National Lawyers Guild National Immigration Project.

For more information contact the writer at . His views in this post are not the views of the organizations mentioned herein.

Attorney Sean Lewis



Caring and compassionate, Sean Lewis is licensed in Tennessee and focuses practice on Immigration Law and cases related to immigration law.

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