Talk of immigration reform in Congress has many in the D.C. immigrant community hoping for a bill that would allow them to stay in the US legally. A report published by Georgetown Law and Ayuda, a non-profit immigrant advocacy organization, suggests Latino immigrants in the District are at risk of being scammed by people who present themselves as legitimate legal practitioners who can help build immigration cases.
These fraudulent practitioners of law often assume the misleading title, notario, which translates to notary in English. In some Spanish-speaking countries, however, it is a title given to someone who has practiced law for more than five years, is of good moral character, and has passed an exam.
Maria Castro just moved into a new apartment in Reston, Va. Castro doesn't have any furniture yet, and her voice echoes off the bare walls. Before moving here, she was homeless. Castro immigrated to the US from Guatemala in 1991. She's been defrauded twice since then and lost more than $13,000. The first time, a notario she found in the newspaper said he could help her get a green card.
Eventually, a green card came in the mail that turned out to be fake. When Castro showed up at the notario's office, the business was gone. Humiliated and worried about losing her legal status, Castro turned to a co-worker for advice. The co-worker referred her to a Spanish-speaking woman who claimed to be an immigration lawyer.
After a consultation and a payment, Castro waited months for news about her immigration case. She checked in periodically with the alleged lawyer who assured her that immigration cases are not won in a day. Castro says she worried about being scammed again, but that she trusted the woman because she was also Spanish-speaking. Eventually, that notario also disappeared.
Anne Scheufele, a law clerk at Ayuda, says victims of immigration fraud are often hesitant to go to the police for fear of putting their legal status into question. Scheufele says perpetrators of this kind of scam often target victims by setting up shop alongside other businesses commonly used by immigrants such as travel agencies or remittance sending services.
Maria Castro thought she was being helped by qualified attorneys. By the second time she was scammed, her temporary work authorization had run out. She was out of a job, and had lost thousands of dollars. Unable to pay her rent, Castro ended up in a shelter that connected her with Ayuda. The organization helped her regain temporary legal status, get a new job, and move into her own place. Castro acknowledges she's come a long way.
Law clerk Annie Schufele and other immigrant advocates say these scams will become more common if Congress approves a bill overhauling the nation's immigration system. They say such a reform would likely open the floodgates of people seeking legal help — and turning to notarios offering to solve their problems — for a price.
Advice for immigrants seeking help:
Receive a copy of any legal documents filed
Retain original copies of personal documents
Find out maximum cost for requested service upfront
Receive a receipt for each payment
Receive a written contract
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