The Ongoing Problem of Notario Fraud
There are around thousands of immigrants around the country going through deportation proceedings. The immigration laws of the U.S. are notoriously complicated; the immigration process is hard to understand. Unfortunately, because immigration proceedings are considered civil, unlike criminal proceedings, immigrants are not afforded the right to a free attorney. Consequently, the American Bar Association reported in 2016 that only about 32% of immigrants are represented by legal counsel, which puts the immigrants at a huge disadvantage. Detained immigrants who were represented were “11 times more likely to seek relief” from deportation and twice as likely to obtain it. This relief often has life or death consequences because of the persecution the immigrant would face if returned to his home country. Similarly, nondetained immigrants were “five times more likely to seek relief” and nearly 5 times more likely to obtain it if a lawyer represented them.[i] This makes immigrants desperate to find someone to help them navigate through the process. However, because of financial reasons, many immigrants are unable to hire a private attorney. Desperate to help them navigate this complicated process, many immigrants, thus, seek the help of “notarios,” who misrepresent themselves as being able to help with their immigration case, but at a much lower cost.
The ABA describes “notarios” as people who “use false advertising and fraudulent contracts” to “hold themselves out as qualified to help immigrants obtain lawful status, or perform legal functions such as drafting wills or other legal documents.”[ii] Unfortunately, because of the language similarities, many Latin Americans use notarios to help them through the immigration process. In Latin America, a “notario” is a professional, similar to an attorney, who is legally authorized to prepare documents.[iii]
Notarios are especially dangerous because they mislead their clients into thinking they are lawyers who can help them with their legal case, when in fact, in most cases all they are authorized to do is fill out paperwork with the client’s information, and provide translation services.[iv] They often purport to give legal advice and file legal documents misleading the clients into thinking they are authorized and have the expertise to do so. The most nefarious of notarios take thousands of dollars and do not file for any form of relief. Others, may file for an application for relief and then suddenly disappear. The notario practice is especially dangerous because they could cause irreversible damage in the immigrant’s case. Some immigrants might lose the chance to apply for other types of relief; others are even ordered deported.[v] These notarios leave immigrants in the unfortunate position of being worse off than they were and without any more money to help their case.
Recently, the ABA reported that use of notarios has increased after the 2016 elections.[vi] Many notarios cases go unreported due to immigrants’ confusion and lack of knowledge. Unfortunately, due to financial restraints and accessibility, for some immigrants, a notario is the only choice. Thankfully, there are some resources available to make sure people are informed of the scams. The ABA created a program dedicated to fighing Notario Fraud, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_services/immigration/projects_initiatives/fightnotariofraud.html. Similarly, USCIS’s websites offers guidance on what people should do to avoid scams https://www.uscis.gov/avoid-scams.