Beware the “Notario”: Tips on Avoiding Immigration Fraud

Horror stories abound in the media about the disastrous consequences caused by “notarios,” “immigration consultants,” and other non-lawyers giving bad immigration advice that causes foreign nationals to permanently lose their rights to stay in the U.S.

Everyone is vulnerable to this exploitation of newcomers. The Colombian-born wife of Georgia State Sen. Curt B. Thompson was on the brink of deportation because she relied on an unscrupulous “notario” to handle her case.

Usually foreign nationals who are the most in need of competent legal advice – those living illegally in the U.S. or who have been arrested and face deportation – are the ones most likely to fall prey to the false promises of a green card from these scam artists.

Part of the reason so many are vulnerable to this type of fraud stems from differences in the structure and regulation of U.S. legal services providers compared to the structure in other countries. The immoral take advantage of these differences to lure their victims. In particular, there are two terms that can confuse foreign nationals seeking immigration help in the US: 1) “Notary” and 2) “Immigration Consultant” or similar title.

Notary, aka Notario, Notaire

In many countries a person who carries the title of notary, (notario in Spanish, or notaire in French), is authorized to provide legal services similar to those performed by a transactional lawyer in the United States. These notaries undergo extensive education and training in their field to earn the coveted title of notary in their country. 

While a licensed notario in Mexico may be competent to dispense legal advice and to provide legal services under Mexican law, a notary in the United States has no such competency or authorization.

In the US, a “notary” or “notary public” has a specific power and purpose: Notaries are appointed by the state government to witness and verify the identity of a person signing a document and to administer oaths. A notary is not qualified to give legal advice at all. Period. Qualifications to be a notary or notary public in the United States typically consist of completing a short training course and little more.

In fact, to avoid the confusion between the two titles many states in the U.S., such as Texas, prohibit the translation of the English title “notary public” into Spanish. 

The confusion between the two terms and the corresponding danger it poses to foreign nationals in the U.S. has prompted the Secretary of State in Texas to post an article detailing the differences between a notary public in the United States and the notario publico in Mexico. 

Legal Consultant v. Immigration Consultant

Another title frequently used by nonlawyers in the U.S. that can mislead foreign nationals is “immigration consultant” or similar such term.

Many countries have different degrees of regulated legal service providers, one of which may be called a “legal consultant.” These “legal consultants” are legitimate, but have limited authority to provide only certain types of legal advice. They even exist in the U.S., for example, in New York and California.  These are lawyers licensed in other countries who are authorized by New York or California to provide legal advice only in connection with the lawyer’s home country. These consultants generally are restricted from providing legal advice regarding U.S. laws, including immigration laws.

The term “immigration consultant” is reminiscent of these legitimate legal consultants, but while legal consultants are regulated and held to certain professional, ethical standards, those using the title “immigration consultant” historically were not regulated, which enabled immigration fraud to proliferate.

A foreign national may be mislead by this professional and legal sounding title that resemble titles familiar to him from home and think he is dealing with an authorized legal advisor, when in fact, he is not.

In recent years, a few states have cracked down on this type of misrepresentation, either prohibiting use of the term “immigration consultant” or restricting its to only certain, qualified people. Nevertheless, in most states the term remains unregulated, meaning foreign nationals are still at risk of unwittingly relying on the wrong person for help.

Finding Competent Immigration Legal Advice in the United States

Foreign nationals familiar only with their legal system do not realize the unethical people who label themselves as notarios or immigration consultants may not be qualified or authorized to give legal advice in the U.S. The consequences can be tragic, with foreign nationals being deported or trapped outside the U.S. unable to return home to husbands, wives and children.

In the U.S., the only person trained and authorized to give legal advice is a lawyer, also referred to as an attorney-at-law. No other person is competent to give legal advice. If a non-lawyer gives legal advice he or she can be charged with the unauthorized practice of law in the state.

Organizations throughout the U.S. are stepping up efforts to educate the public about the unauthorized practice of law and the dangers of relying on legal advice by nonlawyers such as the American Bar Association (ABA)  and AILA (the American Immigration Lawyers Association).

In a public service information piece, the ABA identifies these titles as red flags for those seeking immigration assistance:

  • Notario
  • Notario Publico
  • Visa Consultant
  • Immigration Consultant

Other red flags the ABA cites include:

* The person told you that you could get a green card or other benefit for which you were never eligible. 

* The person said he or she could get you special treatment from a government agency such as Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or Immigration & Customs Enforcement (USICE).

* The person kept your original documents and/or your court notices and made you pay a fee in order to get them back.

* The person asked you to sign blank forms.

* The person took your money and did not provide you with any services.

* The person falsely told you he or she was a licensed attorney.

AILA has published a brochure on how to find competent immigration advice. AILA’s brochure provides the following tips:

1) Use common sense. Many people hear what they want to hear-be smart! If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

2) Don’t believe it if someone tells you about a secret law or claims to have connections or special influence with any agency.

3) Don’t pay money to someone to refer you to a lawyer.

4) Walk away if a lawyer doesn’t have a license.

5) Never sign an application that contains false information, and try to avoid signing blank forms. If you must sign a blank form, make sure you get a copy of the completed form and review it for accuracy before it is filed.

6) Always get proof of filing-a copy or government filing receipt-when anything is submitted in your case.

7) Insist on a written contract that details all fees and expenses and make sure you receive a receipt, especially if you pay cash. If terms change, get a written explanation.

8)  Don’t let anyone “find” you a sponsor or spouse to get you a green card-it’s illegal.

While some may view these warnings by lawyers about nonlawyers to be self-serving (and it is), the warnings are also equally necessary to educate the public so each person can make an informed choice before deciding to engage a lawyer or nonlawyer to assist with an immigration case.

Where to Find Help

If you think you have been a victim of an immigration scam artist, seek professional legal help immediately from an immigration attorney. To find a qualified immigration attorney in your area, you can contact AILA toll free at 1-800-954-0254 or online at http://www.ailalawyer.com/.

Another resource for immigration assistance is an “accredited representative.” An accredited representative has been recognized by the U.S. government as having the skill and training to assist people with their immigration matters. These representatives work with a nonprofit community or religious organization. A list of accredited representatives is available at www.usdoj.gov/eoir/statspub/raroster.htm.

For free or low-cost immigration legal services, the ABA also provides a state-by-state directory.

More information about fraudulent immigration scams in English and Spanish (Español), are available through the following resources:

English

* ABA: The Dangers Of “Notario” Fraud

* AILA: Protect Your Dreams!

* Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.

Español

* ABA: El Peligro De Fraude De “Notario”

*AILA: ¡Proteja Sus Sueños!

* Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.: Cuidado Con Los Notarios

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