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Creating a TikTok account falls into the category of things Norma Sepulveda wouldn’t have done before the pandemic. She thought of it as one of the “silly things” kids like her teenage son do, and Sepulveda’s job is anything but silly.
As an immigration attorney in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, she works on deportation defense and complex cases that intersect with the criminal justice system. Over more than 10 years of practice, Sepulveda has helped countless families obtain visas and green cards and has had to tell many more that a set of arbitrary circumstances prevented them from gaining legal status in the United States. “Nobody ever wants to hear that,” Sepulveda says. So she found it odd when some of those past clients started reaching out to her late last year saying they had seen ads on TikTok for easy ways to fix their status. “I didn’t know if it was just that they had misunderstood it or if there were lawyers providing information that was giving them false hope,” she says.
Sepulveda joined TikTok after Christmas to find that besides viral nail artists, beekeepers, and BookTokers, the platform had become fertile ground for another brand of content creators: immigration lawyers like herself. At a time when consultations had moved online and lawyers had to be more creative about reaching potential new clients, TikTok proved a fruitful marketing tool. But it has also stirred up debates among attorneys about the ethical boundaries of social media advertising, prompting what many believe to be an overdue reckoning with the power imbalances and conflicting incentives—profit and the public interest—inherent to the practice.
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TikTok’s ecosystem of immigration lawyers is a diverse one. There are plenty of zealous advocates attempting to explain in digestible sound bites convoluted, ever-changing policies. There is also potentially misleading content. Many of the advertisements seem to target undocumented Latin American immigrants with strong ties to the United States and few to no existing options for obtaining legal status.
Generally speaking, immigrants who enter the country illegally, overstay a visa, or have certain criminal convictions or prior deportation orders can be disqualified from applying for a green card within the United States even if they are eligible through a spouse or children with citizenship or permanent residency. Instead, they often must go abroad and apply for a green card from a foreign consulate, sometimes after staying out of the country for a mandated period that can be as long as 10 years. This unforgiving feature of the archaic immigration system, which President Joe Biden’s immigration reform proposal would eliminate, forces many people to choose between leaving their families and staying undocumented. It also creates opportunities for unlicensed legal consultants known as notarios and some lawyers to cash in on a vulnerable population.
It’s this population that the TikTok ads primarily target.
“It just goes to the heart of the problem with immigration to begin with, that there’s very few ways to help these people,” says Laureen Anderson-Stepanek, a Chicago-based immigration lawyer.
The TikTok posts usually follow a simple formula: With a mariachi song or reggaeton beat playing in the background, the lawyer dances and flashes work permits, while pop-up boxes urge the viewer to schedule a legal consultation. They also often carry the hashtag #arreglarsinsalir, or “fix without leaving,” implying that viewers can obtain legal status without having to go to an embassy or consulate abroad. The hashtag has topped 1 million views.