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False hope: how social media ads for immigration services are misleading

A flashy advertisement on the popular social network TikTok promises to easily obtain a visa and a green card. There's a reason these commercials seem too good to be true. Mother Jones.

Photo: Shutterstock

Texas immigration lawyer Norma Sepúlveda says she wouldn't have started a TikTok account before the pandemic. She thought of it as one of the "stupid things" kids do, and Sepulveda's work is very serious.

As an immigration attorney in the Rio Grande Valley, she deals with deportation defense and complex cases that intersect with the criminal justice system. In more than 10 years of practice, Sepúlveda has helped countless families obtain visas and green cards, and many more had to say that a number of circumstances prevented them from gaining legal status in the United States.

“Nobody ever wants to hear that,” says Sepúlveda.

So she found it odd when some of those past customers started reaching out to her late last year, saying they had seen ads on TikTok to learn about easy ways to fix their status.

“I didn't know if they misunderstood something, or if lawyers provided information that gave them false hope,” she says.

Sepúlveda joined TikTok after Christmas and found the platform to be fertile ground for immigration lawyers like her. At a time when consulting moved online and lawyers had to be more creative in finding leads, TikTok proved to be a useful marketing tool. But it has also sparked controversy among lawyers about the ethical limits of social media advertising.

The ecosystem of immigration lawyers at TikTok is very diverse. There are many lawyers trying to explain the convoluted, ever-changing rules in easy-to-digest phrases. There is also potentially misleading content. Many of the advertisements seem to target illegal immigrants from Latin America who have little or no options for legal status.

Immigrants who enter the country illegally, have a visa overstay, have certain criminal convictions or previous deportation orders may not be eligible to apply for a green card in the United States, even if they are eligible to do so through a spouse or children with citizenship or permanent place of residence. Instead, they often have to go abroad and apply for a green card at a foreign consulate, sometimes after staying outside the country for a fixed period that can be up to 10 years. This forces many people to choose between leaving their family or being undocumented in the United States. It also creates opportunities for unlicensed legal consultants and some lawyers willing to cash in on vulnerable populations.

These are the groups that TikTok ads primarily target.

“First of all, it touches the very heart of the immigration problem: there are very few ways to help these people,” says Lauryn Anderson-Stepanek, an immigration lawyer based in Chicago.

On the subject: How to Recognize Immigration Fraud and Protect Yourself: USCIS Recommendations

TikTok posts usually follow a simple formula: with music playing in the background, a lawyer dancing and showing work permits, and pop-ups urging viewers to schedule legal advice. They also often have the hashtag #arreglarsinsalir, which means “fix without leaving,” and hints that viewers can gain legal status without visiting an embassy or consulate abroad. The hashtag has exceeded 1 million views.

In many cases, advertisements, often bilingual, guarantee a work permit for 6 months and a green card for 2 years, even if "other lawyers said you had no options." The hint of unwillingness or inability of competitors to "win the hard case" is an important selling point, as is the catchphrase "You deserve the paperwork." The meaning of the 15-60 second videos is clear: whatever the immigration problem, there is a solution. But if you are not familiar with the intricacies of immigration law, it will be difficult to tell what exactly is being advertised.

What these ads advertise is the class of humanitarian visas and benefits for immigrant survivors of domestic violence and some other crimes and human trafficking in the United States. These generous protections can lead to work permits and the ability to obtain a green card without leaving the country (“arreglar sin salir”), either because fines for unlawful presence do not apply or because they are easier to avoid.

But many TikTok videos from lawyers with tens of thousands of followers do not mention visas or explain the basic requirements for such visas. Instead, common phrases such as "having trouble in marriage" and "disrespecting a toxic partner" are more commonly used alongside decontextualized questions such as "Are you separated from your citizen or permanent resident spouse?" and "does your child have an addiction problem?" Less visible, written in tiny letters, may be the disclaimer: "This is not legal advice, advice is needed in every case."

Immigration lawyers have mixed feelings about this marketing trend. They shared reservations about the lack of transparency and withholding important information that would enable immigrants to make better decisions. But many have also been wary, pointing out that without concrete evidence of fraud and conflict of interest, the acceptability of TikTok videos is a matter of personal ethics and style, not legality.

One lawyer said that “it’s enough to sell in essence to get people to market,” which means collecting an initial consultation fee. (Lawyers often charge $ 100 or more for a 30-minute phone or video call.) This does not mean that clients end up not receiving adequate legal advice or that the system is being abused. Perhaps a wide network allows these lawyers to find potential clients with legitimate claims who, for one reason or another, do not identify themselves and do not act as victims. On the other hand, it can contribute to “self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Anderson-Stepanek, when people feel obligated to try to meet the requirements by exaggerating or embellishing their stories, and, not knowing the consequences, imagine cases they are not sure to win.

“These are clients who have heard so many times that no one can help them, and they are really desperate,” says Katya Hedding, an immigration attorney based in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. "The problem is, I don't think they all understand what they are writing about."

Since May, Hedding said she has lost track of how many clients have come to her office after being told they can change their status without leaving the country. In one case, a couple signed a royalties agreement and paid thousands of dollars to a lawyer who promised that an undocumented husband would be able to obtain a work permit despite his deportation order. Despite the fact that they never mentioned domestic violence, the lawyer prepared a visa case for him for a spouse who had been subjected to violence.

Ashley Archidiacono, an immigration lawyer practicing in California named Abogada Ashley on TikTok, said her "goal in marketing on TikTok is to educate viewers, let them know there are different opportunities, and tell them to call for a consultation." Texas lawyer Vanessa R. Alonso, who has 87 subscribers, said she hopes her "fun, lighthearted" videos will "spark positive emotions" about immigration.

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The rules governing the professional conduct and ethics of lawyers differ from state to state, but when it comes to advertising, they reflect the guiding principle established by the American Bar Association that "an attorney must not make false or misleading messages" by distorting or omitting facts. In some states, the legal ethics committee also issues non-binding advisory opinions that specifically address the use of social media, often citing general advertising guidelines. The American Immigration Lawyers Association provides information on social media and legal ethics in workshops and published articles to ensure that participants understand how the rules are interpreted.

“If the question arises that advertising is misleading, it can not only harm the consumer, but also affect the lawyer,” says Reid Trautz, director of the Association's Practice and Professionalism Center.

Three months after she joined TikTok, Sepúlveda has over 155 followers. In her daily videos, she answers questions about immigration issues. She also published a three-part series explaining how to obtain visas for survivors of domestic violence and who is applying for them. According to her, her goal is to find the right balance between "entertaining and informative."

“I'm not doing this just to have more business,” she says. - There are many myths about how people can fix their status. And if I can do my part by explaining these different areas of the law so that they are more informed when planning a consultation, I think it will be helpful. "

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