U.S. Congressmen Bill Foster (D, IL-11) and Ted Deutch (D, FL-21) want immigrants protected from fraudulent and unethical legal representation.
The two representatives introduced the Protecting Immigrants from Legal Exploitation Act in the House this summer, which would impose stiff penalties on “notarios”, or immigration consultants, who deliberately provide immigrants with deceitful services.
Immigrant victims who have been scammed by notarios can permanently miss out on their opportunity for legal status. In many instances, these dishonest services have resulted in the deportation of immigrants who might have been eligible for legal status, Foster said when talking to reporters about the issue.
“These immigrants were just trying to follow the letter of the law," Foster stressed. "We should not be punishing people who are making a good-faith effort to play by the rules just because they have become victims of fraud."
Under the measure, immigrants who have been scammed would also be allowed to resubmit paperwork that a notario incorrectly filed. Immigrants would be able to make their case again with accurate information from a real attorney.
In many Latin American countries, a notario, or a notario público, is a state-appointed lawyer whose qualifications are usually equal to or may exceed those of an attorney. But in the United States, a notary public may not even be a lawyer at all, Foster noted.
The notarios in question often falsely advertise that they are highly-qualified attorneys who can help immigrants gain legal status and draft legal documents. They may charge a hefty fee for the services, which they may never provide. Some also fill out documents incorrectly.
Foster said there is a “blizzard” of ads for notarios on Spanish-language radio stations in Illinois.
“There’s been a huge surge of these ads since President Obama’s announcement of the deferred action for DREAMers, or DACA,” he added. “And there are already ads out there that are promising to file papers so you can be first on the list for comprehensive immigration reform, even though we haven’t even passed it yet.”
Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center, provided example after example of instances in which immigrants have been duped. She said one of her center's clients was told by a notary that he could receive a work visa. The notary charged the man $3,500, but did not file any paperwork. The client was later stopped for a driving violation and was placed in removal proceeding, she said.
Koop added that these cases are not “anomalies”, and the harm from notary fraud “is not insignificant.”
Under the proposed measure, those caught scheming to fraud immigrants would see tougher fines, a possible jail sentence of up to 10 years, or both. Individuals who misrepresent themselves as an attorney regarding any federal immigration law matter would be slapped with an increased fine, a prison sentence of up to 15 years, or both. As part of the proposal, devious immigration consultants would be required to pay any fraudulent service costs collected back to their client.
Mary Helen Reyna, an immigration attorney in Bolingbrook, Ill., said immigration-consulting services are allowed in Illinios, but specific signage must be visibly posted in English and in the language of the client stating the legal counselor is not an actual attorney. She added that most notarios are not complying with this state law.
“I have seen notarios on both sides. Those who are simply trying to take advantage and exploit immigrants during a time like this where people are hopeful for immigration reform, and simply trying to make a quick dollar and disappear,” she said.
She has had several clients who have had paid notarios fees ranging from $2,000 to $6,000 for services, but then the immigration consultant disappeared.
One individual paid a notario $40,000 to help him with a petition for his family, only to find the notario had vanished after months of no response, Reyna said.
The notario problem is not limited to Latino immigrants. Foster said there are a growing number of reports of fraudulent lawyers targeting south and east Asian immigrants and other communities. He also added that the odds of a winning a deportation case are five times higher if a real lawyer is representing the immigrant.
In addition to the penalties, the bill would authorize funds for a public awareness campaign on notario scams. It would also authorize a competitive grant program for non-profits that provide immigrants with legitimate legal services. It’s not yet clear, however, how much money would be set aside for the efforts.
Foster pointed out that the U.S. Senate’s immigration reform bill, which passed in its chamber in late June, includes some $14 billion for border security.
“If we have that kind of money to spend on border security, I think that we can spend a tiny fraction of that amount of money making sure that we have good and correct legal proceedings when we evaluate the legal status of the people that may or not be allowed to continue in the United States,” Foster said.
Foster stressed the need to move forward with the notario legislation, as the problem would likely get worse once comprehensive immigration reform passes.
“These abuses have costs thousands of immigrants their hard-earned savings and have also led to unnecessary deportations and families being needlessly being ripped apart,” Foster said. “We cannot let this injustice continue.”