Good Intentions Gone Bad: The Role of the BIA Accredited Representatives

by Jodi Mckay, Student Writer

Every day thousands of people from around the world immigrate to the U.S in hopes to build a better life. Currently, 61 Million immigrants live in the United States, and many of these immigrants seek legal permanent resident status. Even though this is a worthwhile, final goal, for many, it is also a long and arduous hurdle that they must overcome. Often new immigrants seek counsel from a qualified immigration lawyer during this process, However, in a country that has over 1,300,705 million lawyers, there is a shortage of immigration lawyers. Currently, there are only 13,000 lawyers who are registered members of American Immigration Lawyer’s Association. (AILA) which gives a good indication of how many immigration lawyers are in the U.S.

Unlike the criminal court proceedings, immigrants who find themselves in the middle of immigration court proceedings do not have the constitutional right to counsel. Therefore, the immigrants are often represented by non-lawyers.  One group of non-lawyers who help immigrants navigate through the U.S immigration system are the BIA Accredited Representatives.  BIA Accredited Representatives are persons who are accredited by the BIA to appear on behalf of qualified organizations (such as churches and other non-profits) to help with immigration matters. These organizations, following the BIA's rule, charge a nominal fee for their services and they are required to show that they have “adequate knowledge and information” but their requirements for the BIA often ends there.

Although at a quick glance this may seem like the perfect solution to a lack of immigration attorney problem, it is a solution that comes with severe limitations. First, and foremost, even though the Accredited Representatives undergo initial training and a renewal process every three years, quality of the service provided by these representatives vary significantly. Second, even though many of the accredited organizations have a licensed attorney on staff, they are not required to do so. Third, and perhaps the most troubling is that there is not a clear description what the BIA accredited representative CAN do.  In practice, this kind of ambiguity and potential lack of proper supervision does not answer but rather raises more questions. For example, “Are BIA Accredited Representatives held to the same level of client confidentiality as a licensed attorney?”

In contrast, in the field of medicine and psychology (another professional field that requires a high degree of training and confidentiality between a client and the professional) there are clear boundaries between licensed and unlicensed professionals. Additionally, there is a definite limit in each practitioner’s duties based on their level of expertise and education. For example, a Certified Nurse’s Aide (CNA) may participate in the day to day care of a patient, but he or she may not diagnose or treat a patient in any way. Whereas an M.D who receives significantly more training and education may.

 Over thirty federal agencies permit non-lawyer representation, and when clearly thought out and monitored can be an excellent addition to our current legal system, however, an underprepared non-lawyer may have a detrimental effect on his or her client’s life.

The story of father Vitalglione is perhaps one of the best examples of how a well-meaning BIA accredited representative could have a long-lasting negative impact on his clients’ lives. Father Vitalglione is a Roman Catholic priest who is also a BIA-accredited representative. He has represented numerous immigrants in need over the span of twenty years. Father Vitalglione never received any money from his clients because he felt that his work was his “spiritual calling” and eventually he was listed as the representative for over 761 cases. Recently, he failed to inform one of his clients of her court hearing date and in her absence the court decided to deport her. This incident initiated further investigation by BIA during which the agency determined that father Vitalglione failed to show or came unprepared in over 221 cases. Now barred from the court, his clients and other immigration attorneys  in the area are left to pick up the pieces.[1]

There is no doubt that Father Vitaglione had every good intention. There is also no doubt that he had a great impact on the immigrant community. In fact, some of his former clients believe that he is a saint.  That said, one cannot help but to wonder if the outcome would have been different if Father VItaglione had more guidance and supervision by a licensed attorney.

[1] Sam Dolnick, Removal of Priest’s Case Exposes Deep Holes In Immigration Courts, New York TImes (Jul. 7, 2011),