Fears over the President Donald Trump’s stance on immigration has sent many undocumented immigrants in search of services to help them legalize their U.S. status.
But many are falling prey to unscrupulous “notarios” or “immigration consultants” who lack the legal expertise to help clients. Using false advertising and fraudulent contracts, they present themselves as being qualified and often ask for hefty up-front fees that can sometimes range as high as $10,000 or more.
‘Notarios’ have been around for years
“This is nothing new,” said immigration attorney Myra Azucena of the Azucena Valencia Law Corp. in Pasadena. “It’s been going on for years. It was very common during the late 1990s and early 2000s for people to hire immigration consultants.
Azucena said in many Latin American countires, notarios are considered legal attorneys. But that’s often not the case in the U.S.
Undocumented immigrants can also often permanently lose their chance to pursue immigration relief because a notario has damaged their case.
“Some of these services don’t know what they’re doing and they’re not being held accountable,” Azucena said. “They are often connected to places where people go to get their taxes done.”
American Bar Association hopes to curb abuse
The American Bar Association’s (ABA) Commission on Immigration has launched a “Fight Notario Fraud” project that seeks to rein in unlicensed immigration businesses. The project has three goals:
•How to report immigration consultants who are engaging in the unauthorized practice of law to state and local authorities
•How to report them to state bar associations for the unauthorized practice of law
•Theories that might form the basis of a civil suit against attorneys complicit in immigration consulting fraud
“The mood in the immigrant community is fear,” Azucena said. “That wasn’t the case during the Obama administration. Then there was hope, but now there’s only fear.”
Azucena said she gets lots of clients who have been misrepresented by notario firms that purport to have the expertise to help people with immigration issues.
Shoddy legal advice is typically discovered after the fact
The ABA says notario fraud is typically only identified after the fact when a client has already suffered fallout as the result of a consultant’s shoddy services. That can range from denial of temporary protective status to a removal order.
When this occurs, immigrants often seek the assistance of a licensed immigration attorney. Although there are specific procedures for reopening removal proceedings based on deficient legal advice, many attorneys are unaware of what actions can be taken against notarios or consultants to hold them accountable and head off future abuses.
An immigrant tells her story
Notarios can ultimately ensnare undocumented immigrants from any country who many be unsure of where to turn for help.
Tania, who preferred not to give her last name, immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon in 1994 and begin the process to legalize her status a year later.
“Someone I knew referred me to a paralegal who didn’t have an office,” the 46-year-old Hollywood resident said. “He said, ‘Oh, you’re from Lebanon? Pay me the money and I’ll give you the documents to sign.’”
She paid him total of about $4,500 including fees and found later out that he had concocted a made-up story about her life in an effort to improve her chances of becoming a legal U.S. citizen. That eventually backfired and after going to another unlicensed immigration services provider years later she learned that there was an order in place to deport her.
Tania was able to prove that the company she worked for had been sponsoring her with a work permit and she also had years worth of documents to prove that she had been paying taxes all along.
Those documents, along with sound legal advice from a licensed attorney, ultimately helped her gain legal U.S. status.
“That whole journey took me 19 years,” she said. “That was years and years of living in anxiety. I think it’s inhumane to make people live in fear, feeling like the ground will be pulled from underneath them.”
It pays to do your research ahead of time
Pasadena immigration attorney Romben Aquino, who helped Tania become a U.S. citizen, said some notarios may have good intentions, offering legitimate tax preparation and other services. But when incomplete or subpar legal services are provided, it generally lands clients in court.
“You just have to do your due diligence,” he said. “Every attorney has a license number and you can also look someone up online to see if any disciplinary actions have been taken against them. You can Google someone’s name and you can also look on Yelp because sometimes people who have been burned will write about it.”