The woman claimed that her sister worked for U.S. Customs and Immigration Services. For $2,000, she told a group of undocumented immigrants who had gathered at a Glendale home that she could get them a visa and social security card.
For $1,500 each, she could bring in their family members from Mexico in an official Department of Homeland Security vehicle.
After listening to her speak, they all gathered up their birth certificates and passport photos, and dug into their savings.
One couple handed over $4,000 cash for visas and social security cards, then another $3,000 to have family members brought over from Mexico.
Another woman gave her $2,000 for a visa and social security card, and $1,500 so that her brother could come over.
When the final couple hesitated, the woman told them that her sister at USCIS was going to retire in two days. They had to move quickly.
Not long after, they gave her the $4,000.
When the documents — and their family members — never arrived, it became clear that all five had fallen victim to immigration-document-preparer fraud.
Out thousands of dollars, they had little recourse and were no closer to legal citizenship.
Stories like these are all too common in immigrant communities, which is why State Senator Martin Quezada, a Democrat who represents Maryvale and Glendale, is sponsoring a bill that would crack down on notarios, or notary publics, who pose as attorneys and claim to be able to help with immigration issues.
Because notary publics can practice law in some Latin American countries, many immigrants to the United States don’t realize their powers are considerably more limited here. Already, notary publics face felony charges if they are caught providing legal advice; Quezada’s bill, SB 1421, would add a $1,000 fine and require that their licenses be revoked.
Quezada, who attempted to pass legislation targeting notarios last year, believes the bill is more necessary than ever in the current political landscape.
“I think because of everything that’s happening with our new president, people are rushing to do whatever they can with their immigration status,” he said. “It opens the door for bad actors to prey upon people who are vulnerable right now.”
The bill has already passed through committee, and should be up for a full vote in the next two weeks.
If it passes into law, the challenge will be getting undocumented immigrants — who, for obvious reasons, are often reluctant to notify the authorities — to report fraud.
“That’s always going to be difficult,” Quezada acknowledges. “What’s needed is more community education about this issue — so that we can tell them that there is recourse for them, and that people can be held accountable.”
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