SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to regulate non-attorney "immigration consultants" and prevent predatory practices in the immigrant community advanced to the full Senate Thursday afternoon, following a debate where one lawmaker called it a restraint on trade that won't benefit consumers.
Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, said she introduced the legislation to address the high incidence of fraud among "immigration consultants" hired by refugees and undocumented residents to assist them with immigration matters such as filling out immigration forms.
SB144, which was heard by the Senate Business and Labor Committee, would require consultants to register with the state Division of Consumer Protection, undergo criminal background checks and post bonds. It also creates a complaint process for people who have been defrauded.
"This is to prevent predatory practices that are, unfortunately, well-known among the refugee and immigrant communities," Robles said.
Immigration attorney Aaron Tarin, whose law practice is based in West Valley City, said when some clients cannot afford to hire an attorney, they seek assistance from immigration consultants.
"Immigration consulting" services are sometimes offered by one-stop businesses that also sell money orders, prepare taxes and provide translation services.
Some who provide these services are notary publics, which can be confusing for people from Latin American countries, where a notario publico is a highly sophisticated attorney. In Utah a notary public can only witness the signing of legal documents.
Some consultants have not performed the work that they were hired to do or they fraudulently fill out forms, resulting in backlogs in the legal immigration system or landing clients, attempting to obtain legal status, in deportation proceedings.
One non-attorney consultant was so brazen that she started appearing on behalf of clients in immigration court, Tarin said.
She persisted until the Utah State Bar filed obtained an injunction to prevent her from practicing law without a license. Criminal charges were also filed, but the woman fled the state, Tarin said.
"Since then, 20 to 25 people have taken her spot," he said.
Representatives of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City and the conservative think tank Sutherland Institute spoke in favor of the bill.
Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, called the legislation "a classic restraint on trade."
He said he doubted that requiring consultants to register with the state would reduce the incidence of fraud.
"These things never work out for the benefit of the consumer," said Urquhart, who along with Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, voted against the bill.
Robles said owners of reputable businesses that offer limited consulting services thanked her for introducing the legislation.
"There are some good professionals. They're out there. Not everyone is participating in predatory practices," Robles said. Some have told her, "I'm here to help and provide a professional service."