Legal Immigrants Need Better Protection from Scams
It’s hard to stay one step ahead of crime. Schemers always seem to be on the prowl for their next opportunity. In particular, citizens of other nations who are eager to immigrate lawfully to the United States can fall victim to people who offer solutions that are too good to be true.
Often these people call themselves notarios or notarios publicos. In some Latin American nations, the term “notario público” refers to a highly educated, closely regulated expert in the law. Here, however, the term’s literal translation, notary public, refers to a clerical position, and U.S. notaries are not authorized to give legal advice.
While accredited immigration consultants offer legitimate services, unethical consultants or notarios take advantage of those who think the word means “licensed lawyer,” or someone authorized to handle immigration matters.
California was one of the first states, back in the 1980s, to pass a law to combat notario fraud, and in 2001 the state’s attorney general created the Office of Immigration Assistance. It has prosecuted more than two dozen businesses for committing immigration fraud, but immigration attorneys who work with clients to fix the mistakes of notarios say the problem still is rampant.
Many victims are afraid to report fraud to the state. Most recently, licensed immigration attorneys have seen notarios trying to pick up clients by hanging around federal immigration buildings — like
those drivers at airports who try to get you to bypass the official taxi line and ask, “Need a ride?”Sen. Dianne Feinstein wants to try a new tactic. She, along with Sen. Edward Kennedy, introduced legislation earlier this year to “[c]reate a new federal crime to penalize those who engage in schemes to defraud aliens in connection with federal immigration laws.”
Notarios across the country continue to use false advertising and fraudulent contracts and often charge a large upfront fee. After the checks have been cashed and the paperwork filed, the clients receive a notice of deportation. False and incorrect documents can drastically delay the citizenship process or ruin it completely.
California and some other states prohibit literal translation of the phrase “notary public” into Spanish, and consultants are supposed to conspicuously display the fact that they are not lawyers. But California immigration lawyers say they see Web sites that flat out ignore these laws.
Some attorneys are now turning to other state laws to fight notario fraud.
Lawyer David Zetoony thought consumer protection laws could help. He persuaded his law firm to team up with the American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration, and together they trained about 150 immigration lawyers how to bring consumer protection cases against notarios. Now the commission has a referral network online, www.fightnotariofraud.com, so that immigration attorneys can work with pro bono litigators to shut down fraudulent notarios. That site has help for fraud victims as well.
So far, victims have won test cases in Maryland and Virginia, barring the notarios from “helping” anyone for the next 10 years and fining them thousands of dollars. The information from these cases will become part of an information-sharing repository through the ABA’s Commission on Immigration.
We need members of Congress to pass tough laws, and we need lawyers to come together to use laws of this land to hold wrongdoers accountable. Getting tougher on notario fraud translates into access to justice for all — not justice for a few, or for those who can pay for it, or those who are fluent in English.
H. Thomas Wells Jr. is immediate past president of the American Bar Association. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.
Published in the San Jose Mercury News.