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Commentary: Speak Out Against Notario Fraud and Immigration Scams

Notario fraud is rampant across the United States, but especially in Latino, Caribbean, Russian and Brazilian communities in South Florida. Scammers target their own, preying on fearful, desperate immigrants and promising often unattainable results. This is something that will increase as immigrants anxiously wait for President Barack Obama's executive orders on immigration reform to come into effect.

Many of us in South Florida know that a "notario" in Latin America refers to someone with the equivalent of a law license in their country -- but not in the U.S. Notarios rely on this confusion among immigrants to drum up business. A "notario publico" who obtains a U.S. notary public license and offers it as evidence that she is qualified in immigration law is committing notario fraud.

Notarios irreparably damage their victims by taking thousands of dollars to file baseless applications. They provide oversimplified or patently wrong advice couched in legal jargon. They miss filing deadlines. Victims sign applications they do not understand, or worse, the notarios sign for them. As a result of the notario's advice or actions, immigrant clients can miss opportunities to obtain legal residency, can become subject to criminal charges for filing false claims, and be unnecessarily deported. They are left exposed before the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, often paying the ultimate price -- enduring heartbreaking separation from family, perhaps forever

Why are immigrants so vulnerable? Many newly arrived immigrants understandably trust those who speak their language and share their culture. Also, immigrants may perceive notarios as educated and powerful, and therefore owed the type of compliant respect they would get back home.

Recently, a Russian woman hired a nonlawyer to help her find a way to remain in the U.S. as she approached the end of her lawful exchange visitor status. She spoke no English, but, trusting her nonlawyer, signed an application she believed was to lawfully extend her stay. Instead, the application was a fabricated asylum claim the nonlawyer created. The Immigration Court put her in removal proceedings.

What is worse, during the pending removal, she should have been able to file for permanent residence because she had married a U.S. citizen. However, she was prohibited due to the court's fraud finding. She alone bore the devastating result of her trust in the nonlawyer and was ordered deported, permanently barred from returning to the U.S. Her nonlawyer presumably lost nothing. Had he been a licensed attorney committing fraud or making serious errors, the client would at least have had a remedy as a consumer and the lawyer could be penalized or even disbarred.

According to a 1978 Florida court decision, nonlawyers are limited to typing forms using information provided by the applicant. They may not edit or add to a form, nor discuss it.

Immigrants must be empowered to demand what is rightfully theirs: A written contract for legal services; the right to be timely informed about the status of their case and about all representations made to the government on their behalf; and the right to copies of all forms, receipts and other documentation in their case.

If you are a victim or know a victim of immigration fraud, don't feel ashamed or helpless. Report it to the Florida Bar, or to the American Immigration Lawyers Association of South Florida, even anonymously. Protect yourself, your family and your future.

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