New York State this week officially implemented tougher penalties to combat fraudulent immigration assistance services in an effort to protect the state's immigrant population.

With New York State being home to the largest immigrant population in the U.S., the new state Immigrant Assistance Service Enforcement Act provided clarification, disclosures and new responsibilities for immigration assistance services, and it went into effect on Feb. 2.

The Immigrant Assistance Service Enforcement Act requires immigration assistance services contracts to guarantee that interpreters have accurate translation, provide customers the right to maintain original documentation regardless of fees or costs issues, acknowledge the consumer has the written right to know if assistance services discloses information to official immigration authorities and be aware of free legal referral by the state including the attorney general, local district attorney and the Office of New Americans (ONA).

The new law also bans general businesses to use the terms "notario public," "notario" and "immigration specialist." Businesses are prohibited from threatening customers to immigration and other authorities that could jeopardize an immigrant's status or attempt to secure legal status. Immigration assistance service providers are also not allowed to accept fees for an act to be performed in the future and knowingly mislead consumers.

The Immigrant Assistance Service Enforcement Act was created to protect immigrants from "wide-scale immigration services fraud," according to Crespo, who authored the bill.

"The new law is the most comprehensive anti-fraud, immigrant protection law enacted in New York State in more than 50 years," New York Assemblyman Marcos Crespo added. "The new law creates stronger protection for immigrants who have been defrauded and who have lost their life-savings paying for what they thought were legitimate immigration assistance services."

"The new law also makes it a felony for those committing the fraud and creates a pathway for recovery of lost fees," said Crespo. "In addition, for the first time in New York State history, we will have an office permanently dedicated to helping immigrants integrate into our communities and mandates that this new office (ONA) and its 27 regional offices assist immigrants with English language acquisition, assistance with federal immigration matters, connect immigrants to entrepreneurial, employment referral and workforce development programs, and assist law enforcement in combating crimes against immigrants."

With the law in effect, the ONA becomes a permanent fixture for the NYS Department of State. The ONA will help assist on immigration status issues, connect immigrants to business opportunities, improve access to adult English language (ESOL) training, civic engagement and create a multi-lingual toll-free hotline and website for immigrants and visitors to obtain information or deliver complaints.

"USCIS places a high priority on combating immigration service scams," U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the New York District Director Phyllis Coven. "We commend New York State and this coalition of allies for adding 'teeth' to the penalties awaiting immigration scammers and look forward on enhancing our working relationship with the Office of New Americans."

Prior to the law's implementation, New York did not enforce penalties to immigration assistance service fraudsters. If proven guilty, fraudsters who harm a consumer could risk a $2,500 fine while those who violate the new law could encounter a class A misdemeanor and risk imprisonment on the first offense in addition to a monetary penalty.

The maximum civil penalty of the new law increased from $7,500 to $10,000. The maximum civil penalty, however, could increase up to $10,000 due to "specific aggravating circumstances, such as: whether defendant knowingly acted with disregard, caused customer to suffer loss of primary residence, employment or property, and whether customer(s) were substantially more vulnerable because of impaired understanding."