ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Department of Justice has recruited hundreds of people without law degrees to help represent immigrants. It's happening because of a shortage of immigration lawyers. One of those accredited representatives in New York has come under scrutiny, so there are calls for more oversight of the program. WNYC's Beth Fertig in collaboration with the TV station Telemundo 47 brings us this report.
BETH FERTIG, BYLINE: Last year, a businessman named Carlos Davila started selling a new identification card for immigrants who don't have legal status. After President Donald Trump took office, he upped the price of the cards to $200 and created a new Spanish-language website featuring one of his YouTube ads.
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CARLOS DAVILA: (Speaking Spanish).
FERTIG: That's Davila in the ad saying, if you don't talk and let the ID do its job, you will not be deported. The card is called ID4ICE, and in case you're wondering, that's not a thing. There's no card that can prevent Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from deporting someone. Attorney Matthew Blaisdell chairs a committee for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
MATTHEW BLAISDELL: It's meaningless. And to the extent he's implying that it has meaning or any force, then that's a clear misrepresentation.
FERTIG: Blaisdell has seen all kinds of people trying to take advantage of immigrants, but Davila literally has the government's seal of approval. He's one of 1,800 people currently accredited by a Department of Justice program that lets non-lawyers represent low-income immigrants in court and with citizenship matters. To qualify, they have to work at a nonprofit and demonstrate a knowledge of the law. I went with Pablo Gutierrez of Telemundo 47 to ask Davila about the ID cards. We found him in his office in the South Bronx.
PABLO GUTIERREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FERTIG: Busy day?
The cards say in English that the holder doesn't have to speak or provide any documents unless there's a warrant. Davila acknowledged he can't promise cardholder's won't be deported.
DAVILA: You know, we can say that ICE is not to going to touch you, but it's a big possibility that he will not do what they do with all the people because they just arrest them, you know. Now, with this here, they have an insurance that they protected. They know their rights.
FERTIG: Davila has since taken down his website, and the Justice Department said his authorization to represent immigrants is now under review. The agency recently tweaked the program and began asking more questions of applicants, including whether they've ever been convicted of a crime. When Davila applied in 2011, that wasn't a question.
He did not disclose that he had been convicted of first degree manslaughter in the 1980s and of misdemeanor sex abuse in the '90s. He spent a total of 12 years in prison. Davila says he served his time and that if the federal government wanted to know about his past, it should have asked.
DAVILA: You know, they should do a background check.
FERTIG: Immigration attorney Blaisdell agrees. He also says the Justice Department should more carefully scrutinize applicants and their nonprofits.
BLAISDELL: The field of immigration, where the population is so vulnerable and where the consequences are so severe and where the laws are so complex, it just creates this kind of perfect storm for exploitation.
FERTIG: There's never been a federal audit of the accreditation program. When presented with our findings, two members of Congress from New York's delegation called for more oversight of the program. Meanwhile, the New York state attorney general has ordered Davila to stop selling the ID cards. For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.
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