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Proposed legislation before the Georgia General Assembly would add punch to the penalties for those who defraud immigrants by pretending to be lawyers, its backers say. But the State Bar of Georgia is concerned that enlisting the Legislature to regulate any aspect of the legal profession could undermine the Georgia Supreme Court’s traditional discipline process. State Reps. Barbara J. Mobley, D-Decatur, and Randal Mangham, D-Decatur, sponsored HB 333, which would “prohibit certain persons from practicing immigration and nationality law or from providing services relating to immigration or naturalization matters.” The bill defines unauthorized practice as appearing in court or filing documents in immigration court without authorization from either the State Bar or the Board of Immigration Appeals, which sometimes certifies non-lawyer specialists to act as attorneys in immigration cases. The first offense would be a misdemeanor. The second would be a felony punishable by one to three years in prison and a $5,000 fine. The bill is now in the House’s Special Judiciary Committee. Littler Mendelson partner Charles H. Kuck drafted the bill. He says the act would combat “the huge number of individuals who are ripping people off” by pretending to be immigration lawyers. “It’s a law whose time has definitely come in Georgia,” he says. “It needs to pass now and be enacted as soon as possible,” he says. CLEANING UP MESSES Kuck says immigration lawyers often have to clean up the messes left by unqualified and unlicensed immigration advisers. Clients place their trust in these advisers and often don’t know they aren’t lawyers. Many have faced deportation after finding that their advisers didn’t file the proper documents. In many of these cases, no competent lawyer would have had any trouble, Kuck says, but these practitioners “end up getting these people into deportation proceedings they should have never been in.” Mobley, an immigration lawyer herself, says she has discussed a potential bill for at least a year. Calling the rampant unlicensed practice of immigration law “a terrible problem,” Mobley says offenders often get away with their fraudulent practices because many of their victims end up deported, and the remainder try to hide from authorities. “People who are undocumented for the most part are afraid to go and file complaints [and] don’t even know where to go,” she says. A. Kristin Grods, who heads the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Committee on the Unlicensed Practice of Law, welcomes the bill as a way to punish those preying on the vulnerable. “This has been a long time coming,” says Grods, who is an associate with Seyfarth Shaw. “Georgia needs to send a message that UPL will not be tolerated.” ‘SERIOUS GOVERNANCE ISSUE’ The bill also has attracted the Georgia State Bar, which says the bill presents “a serious governance issue” in a note on the Bar’s Web site. Thomas Boller, who handles legislative affairs for the Bar, says the concerns center on whether the state constitution allows the General Assembly to regulate any aspect of the legal profession. Regulating the practice of law always has been the province of the Georgia Supreme Court, under which the ultimate discipline is disbarment, rather than jail time. Boller says this bill would allow the Legislature to undermine the supreme court’s power to discipline lawyers. He says it’s also unclear whether the state has any authority to regulate the practice of what is essentially federal law. Boller says that the Bar will have to study the bill further before taking a position. “Rep. Mobley is just trying to protect people from people who pretend to be lawyers,” he says. “Really, we share the same intent.” The Bar generally investigates complaints of people practicing law without a license, a misdemeanor under state law. It then presents the cases to solicitors in an effort to punish offenders. But Mobley says, “It has not worked. It does not go far enough.” BILL ENHANCES BAR PENALTIES Mobley says the bill enhances the penalties in place for practicing law without a license. The Bar clearly still has a role to play in such cases, she says. “I hope the supremes understand we’re not trying to get on their turf,” she says. Grods says making a felony out of the second offense of practicing law without a license might attract the attention of more prosecutors. District attorneys have gone after only the worst offenders under current laws, he says. A former unlicensed practitioner, Harvey Holliday, recently was sentenced to 20 years in prison on theft by deception charges. The deception was pretending to be a lawyer and taking money from immigrants to represent them. If this bill became law, Grods says, prosecutors could go right after the core violations. Kuck says the law belongs on the state level rather than the federal, because the state has the obligation to protect its residents from those who seek to defraud them. “It’s local communities that suffer from this kind of practice, not the federal government,” he says. The bill adopts exceptions the Immigration and Naturalization Service uses for nonlawyers representing others in the immigration courts. Among others, it includes specialists certified by the Board of Immigration Appeals, law students under the supervision of a Bar member and accredited officials from an immigrant’s home government. Also exempted are people “of good moral character” who have a pre-existing relationship with the immigrant and the permission of the immigration hearing official and who declare in a written statement that they are working without compensation. The bill also specifies that lawful notary work and the work of nonprofit groups would not constitute a violation as long as the services are “solely consisting of assistance in the completion of blank spaces on printed immigration and naturalization service forms” and do not present themselves “as qualified in legal matters or in immigration or naturalization matters.”

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