Advocates Warn of Spike in Fraud as Immigrants Fear Deportation Under Trump

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They claim to have special government connections and promise green cards and legal services at a fraction of the price. But what they end up delivering are surprise fees, shoddy work and mistakes that can cost clients their life savings, or worse, result in deportation.

Fraudsters, who have long targeted immigrant communities, will be ramping up their efforts in the coming months with the looming presidency of Donald J. Trump and his promises of much harsher stances on immigration, warn legal aid groups and immigrant advocates.

“They lure them in by saying, ‘you don’t need to pay a lot of money, it’s super simple,’ and since clients don’t have financial resources to go anywhere else, they think that, I just need help doing something really simple,” said Jacqueline Santos, the lead staff attorney for immigration at the Public Law Center in Santa Ana.

Often they pass themselves off as notarios publicos, or notary publics, who in Mexico are public appointees and have responsibilities similar to lawyers. They are helped by the fact that many Spanish-speaking immigrants are unaware of the very different role of notaries in the United States, who are allowed to do little more than witness the signing of documents.

Making matters even more confusing is that legitimate lawyers and immigration consultants may also refer to themselves as notarios and advertise as such. So when an immigrant walks into a storefront with a notario sign, or responds to an advertisement, it’s difficult for them to know whether they’re dealing with someone who’s legitimate.

The consequences can be devastating, with some immigrants losing their life savings and ending up in a worse position legally, said Nasim Khansari, Director of Citizenship for the Los Angeles-based legal aid group Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

“They put themselves out to be authorized and then they end up scamming people, getting thousands of dollars from them,” Khansari said. “[And] a lot of times, not filing anything on their [client’s] behalf or filing incorrect documents that place them in removal [deportation] proceedings.”

The California State Bar received 581 complaints in 2015 about individuals practicing law without a license, 118 of which were immigration related, according to an annual discipline report released by the State Bar in April.

New Policies Lead to More Fraud

Advocates say fraud becomes more prevalent in times like these when significant changes in the law or the government’s enforcement of laws are afoot.

Since he announced his candidacy in June of 2015, Trump has promised draconian measures to reduce illegal immigration. At one point he vowed to deport all 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States.

He’s backed away from that stance since being elected, but says he still wants to deport up to three million unauthorized immigrants who have committed crimes. While there is wide disagreement over whether Trump could actually follow through on such a crackdown, there is much he will have the power to do when he takes office in January.

Topping the list will be his ability to reverse two deferred action programs implemented by President Obama in recent years that have made it far easier for the children of unauthorized immigrants and the unauthorized parents of U.S. citizens to live and work in this country.

The last time officials and advocates warned of a spike in immigration fraud was in 2014 when those programs – referred to as DACA and DAPA, respectively – went into effect.

“When the economy was real bad and lots of people were filing for bankruptcy…you saw [issues] with petition preparers for bankruptcy,” said Ken Babcock, executive director of the Public Law Center. “There’s not a lot of good, honest, accurate information […] and it’s tough to compete with the constant advertising that some of the rip-offs are doing.”

Santos, who recently conducted a workshop at Latino Health Access headquarters in Santa Ana aimed at undocumented immigrants, emphasized that every immigration case is different, and immigrants should be wary of anyone promising specific outcomes.

“Sometimes it’s family members who will say they had a good experience, but think all cases are the same,” said Santos. “So maybe their family would say ‘I went here and it was really fast and I have everything I need,’ and then they end up with issues.”

Santos recommends families search the name of their attorney on the California State Bar website to make sure they are licensed and don’t have major disciplinary actions.

Immigration consultants, meanwhile, are not allowed to give legal advice and can only offer non-legal assistance, like translating paperwork or helping immigrants fill out forms. They are still required to register by the state and file a $100,000 bond, which you can check online. 

Promoting Community Awareness

Because the term “notario” often implies a level of legal authority to Latino immigrants, state law prohibits consultants from using the term. Someone who says they are a notario but is not a licensed attorney is probably someone you should not trust.

Fraud, however, is often not discovered until after the fact, and it can be difficult to track down notarios to hold them accountable.

“The real fly-by-night operators will close shop on Tuesday and set up shop under a different name on Wednesday,” said Babcock.

Babcock said promoting community awareness about the risks immigrants face, and resources where they can receive legitimate immigration assistance, is the best defense against notario fraud.

Rebecca Farmer, a spokeswoman for the state Bar, said that under current state law, the Bar only has the authority to pursue action against licensed attorneys in their system.

UPDATE 12/1/16: Farmer later added that the Bar can take action to retrieve an individual’s files and legal records from a non-attorney, or file an action in state court against people who falsely advertises themselves as an attorney. 

Nonetheless, Farmer said notario fraud has become a high priority for the Bar in recent years, as the state’s immigrant population has continued to increase. The Bar now coordinates with local law enforcement and legal aid groups to encourage awareness and prevention.

Khansari said efforts by government authorities to crack down on notario fraud have often fallen short of expectations.

“Often times, they are not willing to pursue a case unless there’s a certain amount of loss or a certain amount of victims, so it’s a challenge to get them to go after a notario unless there’s evidence that it’s a recurring thing,” said Khansari.

Available Resources

Victims of fraud can report the issue to the state Attorney General, consumer protection agencies or their local law enforcement. They can also seek the aid of legal advocates to pursue civil suits against notarios to recover lost funds, although there’s no guarantee they will get their money back, and some of the damage to their immigration case may be irreversible.

Khansari pointed to new legislation passed by Los Angeles County Supervisors in September as promising, but just a start.

LA supervisors approved an enforcement program, proposed by Supervisor Hilda Solis, that would require immigration consultants to obtain a license from the county, an effort to crack down on fraud and those who commit it. The program makes it easier for authorities to punish fraud by making it a criminal offense to pose as a notario or offer unauthorized services.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association and American Bar Association have also launched a website with information about each state’s laws on immigration consultants and links to reputable legal aid groups.

Babcock said it will always be a challenge to stop notario fraud, especially in Orange County, where only the Public Law Center and Legal Aid Society offer broad legal services to low income residents.

“We’re the sixth largest county in the nation. LA county probably has 30 legal aid programs serving low income people,” Babcock said. “That’s a big part of the problem — there’s just not a lot of capacity.”

Babcock points to Catholic Charities and World Relief as two organizations that offer reliable references and immigration assistance.

The resources available for Asian American immigrants in their language are even more limited.

Most of the Asian-American advocacy groups in Orange County offer direct services related to health care and social services. Asian Americans in Orange County are largely being referred to Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which provides legal aid and translation in several Asian languages.

Khansari said it is up to advocacy groups to act as watchdogs and steer immigrants toward reputable resources, and encourage victims of fraud to come forward.

“You aren’t going to be retaliated against or deported because you are being defrauded,” said Khansari.

Advocates recommend that families looking for an immigration consultant follow these guidelines:

  • Avoid paying in cash, instead using a cashier’s check or check associated with a bank account in order to create a paper trail
  • Check with friends, family and local legal aid groups for references for a reputable immigration consultant. Don’t hire a consultant straight out of a phone book or from an advertisement
  • Be wary if they charge you for forms or ask you to pay before work is completed. Almost all forms can be downloaded online for free
  • Never sign blank documents or documents with false information
  • Ask for a written contract from the consultant, in both English and your native language, that details the services they will offer and what you are expected to pay
  • Don’t believe it if someone tells you about a secret new immigration law or claims to have connections or special influence with any government office or agency
  • Don’t pay money to someone to refer you to an immigration lawyer
  • Always get proof that your papers have been filed–ask for a copy or government filing receipt whenever anything is submitted in your case
  • Don’t let anyone “find” you a sponsor or spouse to get you a green card–it’s illegal
  • Report fraud to the State Bar’s immigration hotline, which is available in Spanish and English: (866) 879-4532. Fraud can also be reported through a form available online. 

This story was updated 12/1/2016 to include additional resources and information provided by the State Bar of California. 

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

  • AJMintheOC

    There will also be a chilling effect as undocumenteds will not report these scams to authorities for fear that they might get deported. That’s what so many sanctuary cities and schools are wary of, i.e. losing the trust they have built over the years with their immigrant communities. Even if they are not the actual victims of the scam, but know of or witnessed a scam, undocumented immigrants may not want to get involved. Finally, there are the criminal elements of harassment, intimidation and blackmail that could be used against immigrants in order to prevent them from reporting scams or other crimes.

    • LFOldTimer

      If you think hard about it, sir, the scams wouldn’t exist unless the illegals were here. They’re the reason the other illegal scams were concocted.

      A perfect illustration of how illegal activity begets more illegal activity.

      Sanctuary cities are in direct violation of Federal Statutes (laws). Selective anarchy. Hopefully Trump will sever their Federal funds.

      How would you like it if someone could enter your home illegally, use your resources at will and there was nothing you could do to evict him? Would you be good to go with that?

      Once again, the “criminal elements of harassment, intimidation and blackmail” (as you stated) are more crimes that resulted from the original criminal act of entering the country without proper authorization.

      Every nation has borders, sir. You cannot name one that doesn’t. And each nation with borders has immigration laws to protect their citizens from unidentified intruders illegally entering their land. You cannot name one that doesn’t.

      The notion some people harbor believing it’s perfectly fine for foreigners to illegally enter another sovereign nation and use it’s resources to be paid by the legal inhabitants of that nation is both arrogant and incredibly selfish.

      Just as it would be for someone to encourage a stranger to illegally enter your home and use your resources against your will.

      • annomouse

        Ahh, but we give them jobs.

        Yes, upright american citizens are ILLEGALLY hiring undocumented workers and patronizing businesses that ILLEGALLY hire undocumented workers and eating fruits and vegetables picked ILLEGALLY by undocumented workers and are getting their Social Security checks bolstered by ILLEGAL undocumented workers.

        https://news.vice.com/article/unauthorized-immigrants-paid-100-billion-into-social-security-over-last-decade

        So, who’s illegal activity is worse?

        Your little analogy left some facts out, let me fix it for you: Just as it would be for someone to encourage a stranger to illegally enter (hire them) your home (clean it) (paint it) (do the gardening) (watch your children) and to use your resources ( take advantage of them by paying slave wages) against your will (subsidize your retirement).

        There that’s better.

        • LFOldTimer

          I’m not comparing one criminal with another.

          Those who violate state and Federal labor laws should also be held to account. This is not a contest to measure which criminal is worse.

          Those who enter the country illegally are entitled to free taxpayer funded services – like medical care and education. Some receive other transfer payments as well. It’s unfair to citizen taxpayers to fund these services for those who violate the law and come into our nation (home) illegally.

          Naturally you avoided the crux of my argument regarding the unamerican notion of sanctuary cities and the right of every nation to enjoy it’s national sovereignty. ha. All nations have borders. All nations have immigration laws. It’s so simple it’s stupid. Try to grasp the concept.

          You habitually twist the argument to give it a non-applicable meaning. And you love to cherry pick little bits and pieces of the argument instead of engaging in a legitimate debate.

          • annomouse

            I was making the same point you were, illegal hiring begets illegal immigration:

            “A perfect illustration of how illegal activity begets more illegal activity. Crime begets crime.”

            And you’re just as guilty as every one else.

          • LFOldTimer

            No, you diverted attention to the Americans who hire the illegals as opposed to supporting the idea that people shouldn’t enter the nation illegally. It’s the same stupid argument that those who deliver drugs across the border are not to blame. It’s the ones who use the drugs who are to blame! ha. Then you added the blip about illegals paying SS tax that benefits someone else, implying that the illegals are victims. ha. But, of course, you failed to mention that the Inspector General of the Treasury Department reported that in 2010 illegals accumulated $4.1 billion in Child Tax Credits from the US government. ha. You always leave that stuff out.

            I guess you don’t have an opinion on sanctuary cities or illegals obtaining free routine medical care and education or the concept of national sovereignty though. 🙂

          • annomouse

            No, you diverted attention away from the original post’s point about immigrants being victimized by scam artists to go on a hateful anti-immigrant rant about “illegals”.

            And yes old man, your SS security is being subsidized to the tune of $12 BILLION a year by hard-working undocumented workers, so get off your high horse and the next time you see an undocumented worker you should shake their hand and thank them, ‘cuz otherwise you might be eating cat food.

          • LFOldTimer

            Obviously you failed to comprehend the gist of the blog. It referred to those living in the US in need of green cards and those threatened by the Trump election. Duh? Those are referred to as “illegals” since they reside in the country illegally.
            I guess if you’re politically correct you call them “undocumenteds”.

            Legal immigrants are welcomed in America. And there is no reason for a legal immigrant to use these scam artists since they are in the country legally. Duh?

            As I said before – crime begets crime. One criminal act usually morphs into 4 or 5 additional criminal acts. And civilization suffers as a result.

            $12B? Where did you hear that? At the Daily Kos? lol. So if they are using somebody else’s SS# that is yet another crime….it’s called identity theft. A felony. If they steal somebody else’s SS# what do you expect to happen? Duh?

            I’m not on any high horse. I simply believe in national sovereignty and LEGAL immigration. There are millions of foreigners who submit their papers, pay their fees and stand in line – you know – the LEGAL way. Some stand in line for 10 years or longer for a shot to come to America LEGALLY! Yet they are punished and forced to wait even longer because the nation is flooded with those who broke into the country illegally and cut in line.

            If I was born Mexican I would feel the same way about Mexico. I wouldn’t want a bunch of illegal Americans breaking into my country, stealing the jobs of my fellow Mexican citizens and given free medical care and education, compliments of the Mexican taxpayers. This is just basic examples of the difference between ‘right and wrong’ that most of our parents taught us growing up.

            Thank an illegal foreigners for cutting in line, stealing American jobs, getting free health care, education and other benefits all financed by the US taxpayer? ha. What a bonehead comment.

          • annomouse

            Get over it, nobody “broke into” the country, they crossed the border and were GIVEN JOBS and that’s what you can’t seem to comprehend.
            It’s ALL about the JOBS they are given by American citizens.

            It’s really very simple, if they weren’t working here, they wouldn’t be here.

            Wouldn’t it be easier to go after the AMERICAN CITIZENS who are hiring them rather than go after the people who are just trying to survive?

            Yeah, it would be easier, but not nearly as fun nor as satisfying as criminalizing human beings.

            There’s a reason only one end of this illegal activity gets under your skin and that reason ain’t pretty.

          • LFOldTimer

            No, they stole jobs from US citizens. Jobs that American citizens would work – in manufacturing, hospitality, food service, retail, construction, etc… And in the process they’ve driven down the wage and benefits in the employment market for citizens and legal immigrants. It hurts the average American. I support Americans and legal immigrants. Not illegal immigrants. I put Americans first. Can’t you process that simple concept?

            The gov provides work visas for those foreigners who choose to do agricultural work. And I support it. But it’s done LEGALLY. See the difference yet?

            As I clearly communicated – those who hire illegals should be held accountable just like the illegals should be held accountable. It’s called civilization. One is no better than the other. Hopefully E-Verify will solve that problem.

            Which came first? The illegal who broke into the country or the employer who hired him? Which crime resulted in the 2nd crime? Answer the question.

            What kind so world would it be if traffic laws weren’t enforced and people routinely ran stop signs and stop lights and sped 70 mph down residential streets without any threat of punishment? Is that the world you want to live in?

            All of us are trying to survive. The US citizen who works at Mickey Dees for $9/hour who has a $1300 rent payment due at the end of the month is trying to survive too.

            There you go with your disingenuous insinuation. Shame on you. You have no good counterarguments to my logical and rational positions so you toss a soiled card into the mix. ha.

            If you support illegal foreigners (regardless of whatever country they’re from) over US citizens – just say it. Bring it out in the open.

          • annomouse

            Really, we could easily stop the hiring of undocumented workers. All the government would have to do is slap a huge fine on individuals and companies that hired them and enforce it.

            Imagine if you hired an undocumented gardener or painter and were found out and faced a $25,000 or more fine per person. Ditto if you were hiring busboys, cooks or janitors those jobs would quickly dry up.

            But there’s a reason we don’t go after those who hire undocumented workers. And it’s because there would be such an outcry from employers and consumers it would bust your eardrums.

            The dirty little secret in all this is that AMERICANS LIKE AND BENEFIT from the undocumented workers cheap labor.

            So, you can gnash your teeth and disparage them as “illegals”all you want but they are here to stay because the reality is, WE NEED THEM.

          • LFOldTimer

            “WE NEED AND WANT THEM HERE.”

            Speak for yourself. Not for the rest of us.

            If what you say is true Trump would not be the President Elect.

            So your argument failed once again.

            Nothing follows.

          • annomouse

            Trump lost the popular vote by 2.5 million and counting so that argument is specious, but you are right that he started his race with an anti-Mexican screed. And there is little doubt he energized all the racists and xenophobes in this country.
            Is that what drew you to him?

          • LFOldTimer

            The illegal immigration matter has nothing to do with race. You only push it in that direction to fuel the emotional fires and inject some sideshow drama.

            Illegals comes in all different races, creeds, religions and sexual preferences. The illegal immigration matter is all about NATIONAL SOVEREIGNTY and the right of the citizens united under one flag to protect the integrity and the quality of life within their respective countries.

            The immigration laws apply just as much to the Canadians, Dutch, Danes, Germans, Icelanders and Norwegians as it does to Hondurans, Nicaraguans and Mexicans. But you can’t seem to process that concept for some reason.

            It’s not about race. It’s about NATIONAL SOVEREIGNTY. Just like it is in other sovereign nations throughout the globe. Let that assimilate into your subliminal consciousness.

            30 states voted to make Trump the President Elect. Only 20 did so for Hillary. And now I understand that scam artist Jill Stein has decided to throw in the towel on the Pennsylvania recount which destroys any possibility of the recount succeeding and the vote being overturned. Where’d that $7 million bucks go? lol.

            On January 20, 2017 your new President will be Donald J. Trump. Hail to the Chief!

          • annomouse

            He may be PEOTUS but he’s still a racist and a xenophobe and so are his supporters.

            “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

          • LFOldTimer

            Oh, and once again….you habitually fail to respond directly to many arguments that I make in my comments. You sidestep them. You have no good response. Which clearly shows that I am way ahead on points in this debate.

            I respond to all your arguments. Every single one of them.

            But thanks for playing. It’s been fun.