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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.
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.”
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 email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.