As a licensed immigration attorney, I often hear about unscrupulous individuals who pass themselves off as lawyer or legal experts and promise to help immigrants resolve their legal issues. These stories are heartbreaking because these con men make promises that are impossible or beyond their ability to deliver, while asking for large sums of money that most immigrants can ill afford to lose.
In most Latino communities these self-professed “legal experts” are dubbed Notarios. They often offer to help undocumented immigrants obtain legal residency or asylum status if they pay them. While the term “Notarios” in their home countries signify a professional with legal training, in the U.S. Notaries are not qualified to offer legal counsel. Notarios often coerce immigrants into hiring them by plying them with horrendous accounts of the consequences to them if their undocumented status is discovered. Many immigrants, however, may not understand the distinction and are often prey for these types of fraud.
The consequences for hiring these Notarios can be devastating for these immigrants and their families. Many Notarios convince immigrants to file paperwork that is fraudulent or dishonest. If the falsehoods are discovered, many of these individuals lose any chance of remaining in the U.S. Because many immigrants may have a valid claim for seeking asylum or legal residency, using a Notario can eliminate a legitimate opportunity to remain in the country.
State and federal governments are beginning to recognize the danger that Notarios represent to these communities. Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill making it a felony to misrepresent oneself as an attorney. If this individual’s actions resulted in losses of $1,000 or more to clients, they could serve up to four years in prison.
In California, Rey Martin Lespier was sentenced to five years for advertising that he was a licensed attorney and offering to help immigrants resolve legal issues. He opened offices under the guise of a law practice and advertised on the radio.
In 2011, a number of federal and state agencies partnered to launch a crackdown on fraudulent legal services and professionals. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced they would be focusing on New York and six other cities where these activities were common.
These agencies also investigated numerous websites that offered help with immigration issues but provided no such assistance once the fees were paid. Many immigrants who had been scammed by such sites could seek no assistance from law enforcement for fear of deportation or prosecution. Some of the operators of such sites have been penalized up to $100,000.
Almost all legal issues are best handled by a licensed, experienced attorney. Especially in matters of immigration, where there is the possibility of criminal prosecution or deportation, immigrants and their families should engage the services of a professional with an established legal practice and credentials. If there is any doubt, ask your attorney to provide his license from the state bar association or contact one of the many free legal assistance organizations that operate within immigrant communities.
If you would like legal advice from a highly qualified attorney, you are welcome to contact me at (512) 215-5225. Our discussions will confidential.