SANTA ANA, Calif. — Immigration reform is stalled in Congress but that's not stopping immigrants from contacting lawyers, filling out paperwork and making other preparations in hopes of getting a head start should laws change.
That's got some advocates concerned that immigrants, who have been duped before by unscrupulous attorneys and others, could be snookered again. California lawmakers last week passed a bill to ban the practice of charging fees for services related to immigration reform before Congress passes an overhaul.
Immigrant supporters are warning people to be wary of anyone — lawyers, immigration consultants or "notarios" — who offers to help fill out paperwork for a still-non-existent legalization program. Yet many are also urging immigrants to make sure their personal documents are in order now, saying there could be long lines at consular offices for passports and other paperwork.
"If you start planning for it the day it passes, you are probably going to be too late," said Daniel Sharp, legal director at the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles.
Immigration is one of President Barack Obama's top priorities for his second term, but a reform bill faces an uncertain future in Congress. With an estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, a broad overhaul could mean millions of people would be seeking legal services and consular documents and filing paperwork with the U.S. government.
Immigrants, especially those who are newcomers and speak little English, have been conned in the past, most infamously by so-called "notarios," who try to earn their trust with a term that carries hefty legal weight in many Latin American countries. Such scams not only sap immigrants of their hard-earned cash but could even wind up getting them deported.
To steer immigrants clear of fraud, the Mexican government has started a free hotline to provide information about the immigration debate. And in Los Angeles, officials said they are investigating websites that claim to help immigrants get their legal papers even though no legislation has passed.
The California bill, if signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, would also crack down on those billing themselves as "notarios."
"Everybody wants to be first in line but there's no line to get in," said the bill's author, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego.
The State Bar pushed hard for the legislation, over the cries of immigration attorneys, fearing the rampant fraud that has long been a problem in immigration services could bankrupt a fund created to compensate clients duped by crooked lawyers.
Should an immigration bill pass, advocates say, immigrants may only have a year to submit an application. Some advocates say it's too soon to see a lawyer, and certainly too early to shell out large sums of money to get ready for immigration reform.
Immigrants can better spend their time obtaining their children's school records and collecting documents to prove their residence like rental agreements and car loans, said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
Lawyers say they can help now by running background checks and potentially find that immigrants are eligible for other benefits, which has occurred with young people trying to stay in the U.S. legally under an Obama administration program, said Reed Trautz, director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association's practice and professionalism center.
Ric Inzunza, a former deputy commissioner for the Immigration and Naturalization Service who now lives in Mississippi, said he doesn't see a problem with getting started now.
Inzunza said he started RIA International five years ago to be the go-to place for legalization services once immigration reform passes, adding that many immigrants turned in ill-prepared paperwork during the 1980s-era legalization.
For now, he collects a non-refundable $300 fee from immigrants to prepare an internal application that outlines their history in the country. If reform passes, it would take another $2,700 for his company to finish and file their application with federal authorities.
"You can't send an application to Homeland Security or a program that isn't implemented yet, but that doesn't mean you can't get your ducks lined up," Inzunza said, adding that the Starkville, Miss., company has signed up 13 clients to date.
In California, should Gonzalez's bill become law, immigration attorneys say they want to ensure they can still run background checks for clients before reform passes, insisting it is crucial for immigrants to know where they stand with federal authorities regardless of what happens in Congress.
Agustin Hernandez, who came here from Mexico about 25 years ago, has asked a lawyer to pull his records because he was detained briefly by police at the scene of a brawl but to his knowledge was never charged with a crime.
"I want them to pull my records to know what my situation is," he said. "To see if I can qualify once the reform does pass."
James Rudolph, an immigration lawyer with offices in San Diego and Tijuana, said he regularly hears from immigrants who have questions about the reform bill, and often recommends they check their records. Beyond that, there's not much he would, or could, do for them right now, he said.
"Everyone asks me, will my case be approved when the reform passes?" Rudolph said. "And of course the answer is: Who the hell knows?"