State Senator Martin Quezada plans to introduce legislation early next year targeting fraudsters who deceive undocumented immigrants by falsely claiming they’re authorized to provide legal advice or services concerning immigration.
Quezada said he’s taking action because he’s tired of seeing immigrants getting scammed by “notarios” who pose as attorneys. Typically, these individuals prepare and file immigration paperwork on behalf of immigrants and sometimes charge more than immigration attorneys.
But often what ends up happening is that applications get filed incorrectly, deadlines are missed, or false claims are filed with the government. As a result, immigrants may become ineligible to obtain legal residency, may be unnecessarily deported, or may become subject to civil or criminal penalties for the filing of false claims.
“A lot of the victims of this situation are some of the most vulnerable people in my community,” Quezada said. “I come from a very high immigrant population district, and I see the advertisements by these notarios. I see the pull that they have on people who are looking for answers.”
He said part of the confusion stems from the fact that in Mexico and other Latin American countries, a notario is someone who has received the equivalent of a law license. But in the United States, a notario is a public notary who is only qualified to witness signatures.
Quezada said he is drafating his notario fraud bill and hopes to introduce it as early as January. He plans to model it after legislation that was passed and signed into law in Texas earlier this year.
The Texas bill defines notario fraud as its own offense under the state’s consumer-protection statute, allowing city and county attorneys to prosecute immigration-related fraud cases without first having to go through the Attorney General’s Office. It also creates an incentive for city and county attorneys to prosecute these offenses by awarding a portion of the penalties recovered to local municipalities.
Under current Arizona law, notarios or other non-attorneys who engage in the unauthorized practice of immigration law are in violation of Arizona’s Consumer Fraud Act and can be charged with a Class-6 felony. The Arizona AG's Office is the agency charged with investigating these cases and can take criminal or civil enforcement actions.
Quezada says notario fraud “has not been a priority to this point” for Arizona AG Mark Brnovich and his office “because it’s such a low-level crime and because the actual victims of this crime are not high-profile victims.”
Mia Garcia, spokeswoman for Brnovich, said the office does everything it can to raise awareness of notario fraud and to encourage victims to come forward.
She said the office also has been working with Univision to educate the Spanish-speaking community about how people can file complaints with the AG's Office via phone or online in both English and Spanish. But she said, so far this year, no complaints have been filed.
“Over the last few years, we haven’t received as many consumer complaints as we would like to or as we know are out there,” Garcia said.
The State Bar of Arizona, which licenses and regulates attorneys, also has been active in trying to combat such fraud. It investigates complaints relating to the unauthorized practice of law and, when needed, asks courts to prevent an individual from continuing the practice.
In addition, it runs a website in Spanish that warns consumers of notario fraud. And last year, when President Barack Obama announced a series of executive actions on immigration, the State Bar hosted events to educate immigrants about the president’s announcement so they wouldn’t fall for misinformation by notarios.
“This is frankly a massive consumer-protection problem,” State Bar spokesman Rick DeBruhl said of notario fraud. “If you talk to almost every attorney who works in immigration, they can tell you stories of people who have come through their door and who have either lost money or had their [immigration] cases derailed because they went to notarios.”
Immigration attorney Ayensa Millan said she has had many families who've been victimized come to her for help. She recounted the story of a young woman who was advised by a notario to apply to adjust her immigration status through Section 245(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, even though she still had to wait several years to qualify.
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The woman had a clean criminal record and had been living in the United States since she was a child. But she ended up getting deported to Mexico in 2010 because of the adjustment of status application that a notario filed prematurely on her behalf. If not for that, the woman would’ve qualified for a deferred-action program that Obama announced in 2012 that offers protection from deportation and work permits to undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children.
“When her family came to my office, she was already deported,” Millan said. “At that point, there was nothing I could do for her because she was already in Mexico.”
She added that oftentimes very little can be done to remedy damage done by notarios. But if people go to an attorney, they have legal redress — they can file an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim if they believe that an actual lawyer violated their rights. If the claim is successful, they could be given a second chance to reopen their immigration cases or reapply for immigration benefits.
“Unfortunately, when we have cases with notario fraud, we can’t claim that rule,” Millan said.