False Hope: How Immigration Services Advertising Misleads on Social Media

False Hope: How Immigration Services Advertising Misleads on Social Media

  • 23.10.2023 11:58

Bright advertising on the popular social media platform TikTok promises easy access to visas and green cards. These advertising videos often seem too good to be true, and more often than not, they are, according to Mother Jones.

Immigration attorney Norma Sepulveda from Texas says she wouldn't have considered joining TikTok before the pandemic. She thought of it as one of those "silly things" that 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. With over ten years of practice, Sepulveda has helped countless families obtain visas and green cards, but she has also had to tell many of them that certain circumstances prevent them from gaining legal status in the United States.

"No one ever wants to hear that," she says.

So, it seemed strange to her when some of these past clients began reaching out to her late last year, saying they had seen TikTok ads about easy ways to fix their immigration status.

"I didn't know if they were misunderstanding something or if lawyers were providing them with false hope," she says.

Sepulveda joined TikTok and found that the platform had become fertile ground for immigration lawyers like her. As consultations moved online, lawyers had to be more creative in finding potential clients, and TikTok proved to be a useful marketing tool. However, it also sparked debates among lawyers about the ethical boundaries of advertising on social media.

The ecosystem of immigration lawyers on TikTok is diverse. There are many attorneys trying to explain the complex, constantly changing rules in simple terms. However, there is also potentially misleading content. Many of the advertisements appear to target undocumented immigrants from Latin America, who have few options for obtaining legal status.

Immigrants who enter the country illegally, overstay visas, have certain criminal convictions, or prior deportation orders may be ineligible to apply for a green card in the United States, even if they are eligible through a spouse or children with citizenship or permanent residency. Instead, they often have to leave the country and apply for a green card at a foreign consulate, sometimes only after staying outside the country for a mandated period, which can be up to 10 years. This forces many people to choose between leaving their families or remaining undocumented in the United States. It also creates opportunities for unlicensed legal consultants and some lawyers willing to profit from vulnerable populations.

This is the primary target of TikTok advertising.

"First and foremost, it's about the nature of the immigration problem itself: there are very few ways to help these people," says Lorin Anderson-Stepanek, an immigration lawyer from Chicago.

Posts on TikTok are usually structured according to a simple formula: while music plays in the background, lawyers dance and showcase work permits, with pop-up captions urging viewers to schedule a legal consultation. They often include the hashtag #arreglarsinsalir, which means "fix without leaving" and suggests that viewers can obtain legal status without visiting embassies or consulates abroad. This hashtag has exceeded 1 million views.

In many cases, these advertisements, often bilingual, guarantee work permits within 6 months and green cards within 2 years, even if "other lawyers have said you have no options." The implication that competitors are unwilling or unable to "win difficult cases" is an important selling point, as is the catchy phrase "You deserve documents." The message of these 15-60 second videos is clear: no matter what immigration problem you have, there is a solution. However, if you are not familiar with the nuances of immigration law, it can be challenging to determine exactly what is being advertised.

What these advertisements promote are humanitarian visas and benefits for immigrants who have experienced domestic violence, as well as some other crimes and human trafficking in the United States. These generous protective measures can lead to work authorization and the opportunity to obtain a green card without leaving the country ("arreglar sin salir"), either because penalties for unlawful presence are not applied or because they are easier to avoid.

However, in many TikTok videos from lawyers with tens of thousands of followers, visas are not mentioned, or the basic requirements for such visas are not explained. Instead, they often use generic phrases like "having problems in your marriage" and "disrespect from a toxic partner" alongside decontextualized questions such as "Are you separated from your spouse who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident?" and "Does your child have issues with addiction?" There may be a tiny disclaimer in small letters that says, "This is not legal advice; consultation is needed in each case."

Immigration lawyers have mixed feelings about this marketing trend. They have expressed concerns about the lack of transparency and the concealment of important information that would allow immigrants to make more informed decisions. However, many have also been cautious, pointing out that without specific evidence of fraud and abuse of professional position, the acceptability of TikTok videos is a matter of personal ethics and style, rather than legality.

One lawyer said, "It's enough to sell the essence for people to come to the market," which means charging a fee for initial consultations. (Lawyers often charge $100 or more for a 30-minute phone or video call.) This doesn't necessarily mean that clients ultimately do not receive adequate legal advice or that the system is being abused. Perhaps having a wide network allows these lawyers to find potential clients with legitimate claims who, for one reason or another, do not identify themselves or come forward as victims. On the other hand, it can contribute to a "self-fulfilling prophecy," says Anderson-Stepanek when people feel obligated to try to meet the requirements, exaggerating or embellishing their stories, and not knowing the consequences, they present cases in which they are not confident of winning.

"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 from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. "The problem is that I don't think they all understand what they are writing about."

According to Hedding, since May, she has lost count of how many clients have come to her office regarding what they were told about the possibility of changing their status without leaving the country. In one case, a couple signed a fee agreement and paid thousands of dollars to a lawyer who promised that the husband without documents would be able to get a work permit despite his deportation order. Although they never mentioned domestic violence, the lawyer prepared a visa application for victims of domestic violence for him.

Ashley Archidiakono, an immigration attorney practicing in California known as Abogada Ashley on TikTok, said that her "goal in TikTok marketing is to educate viewers, help them understand that there are different options, and advise them to call for a consultation." Vanessa R. Alonso, a lawyer from Texas with 87,000 followers, said she hopes her "fun, carefree" videos "generate positive emotions" about immigration.

Rules governing the professional conduct and ethics of lawyers vary depending on the state, but when it comes to advertising, they reflect the guiding principle set by the American Bar Association, which states that "a lawyer shall not make false or misleading communications," distorting or omitting facts. In some states, ethics committees also issue non-binding advisory opinions specifically related to the use of social media, often referring to general advertising rules. The American Immigration Lawyers Association provides information on social media and legal ethics at seminars and in published articles to ensure that participants understand how the rules are interpreted.

"If there is a question about whether advertising is misleading, it can not only harm the consumer but also affect the lawyer," says Reid Troutt, Director of the Center for Practice and Professionalism of the Association.

Three months after joining TikTok, Sepulveda had more than 155,000 followers. In her daily videos, she answers questions about immigration issues. She also posted a three-part series explaining how to obtain visas for survivors of domestic violence and who is eligible for them. She says her goal is to strike the right balance between being "entertaining and informative."

"I'm not doing this just to get more business," she says. "There are a lot of myths about how people can fix their status. And if I can contribute by explaining these various areas of the law so that they are more informed when planning a consultation, I think it's helpful."