Immigration-related scams prove to be a big worry during this unstable period when the Biden administration attempts to further the Democratic cause by undoing former President Donald Trump’s policies.
Many non-attorneys falsely claim that they are qualified to give legal advice on the topic of immigration. But unethical attorneys can also commit this scam. This particular form of hoodwinking is also called notario fraud. It became so rampant during the transfer of presidential power that Los Angeles County’s immigration experts raced to spotlight the issue for the region’s burgeoning immigrant population.
On January 20, President Joseph Biden set the ball rolling for immigration reform. He sent the proposal to Congress in order to start easing the road to citizenship for numerous migrants living or hoping to live in the United States. But this bill has not become law yet and officials worry that false information about its enforcement is already doing the rounds. “There is no new comprehensive law that grants the path to citizenship just yet,” said Adriana Garcia, the Assistant Director of LA City Office of Immigrant Affairs. She implored listeners of the virtual Town Hall meeting to “be on alert and avoid falling prey to individuals who try to convince you otherwise.”
Garcia pointed out that notario fraud often rears its head during presidential elections and transitions. These are usually confusing times for the general public because they have to sift through a plethora of information from contesting parties. “This is deeply concerning because immigration scams can cause victims thousands of dollars in savings, jeopardize their immigration status, and even result in their criminal prosecution,” said Garcia. “These types of scams take advantage of hopeful immigrants looking to adjust their immigration status,” she went on.
Spot the red flags
Though a national menace, notario fraud especially impacts LA County because immigrants make up 35% of its population and a whopping 44% of its workforce. Rigoberto Reyes, Executive Director for Los Angeles County’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, identified red flags that immigrants can watch out for. His prior experience with consumer protection armed him with a list of telltale signs.
Reyes warned against people (attorneys or otherwise) who lure immigrant petitioners with the promise of guaranteed results. These individuals might even claim to know “special people or officials” who can improve the immigrant’s legal status.
Reyes named one sign to specifically look out for. “Notice if they charge thousands of dollars. Once, I investigated a family who paid a guy $88,000. The “luckiest” are the ones [whose scammers] don’t do anything for them,” he informed. By this, Reyes meant that if the fraudsters filed a petition on behalf of the immigrants for a case they do not qualify for, not only can immigration officials deny the petition but they can also deport the concerned immigrants.
Other warning signs include asking people to lie on forms, the absence of receipts and contracts, requesting people to pay in cash only, and asking petitioners to submit original documents which the scammers would keep.
Garcia mentioned that Facebook has already become a platform where misinformation about legal services is being spread. “We’re seeing a lot of bad advertising circulating already. They are inevitably going to catch people who are anxious to get an opportunity and so may not ask all the questions,” she said. Reyes added that it takes years for victims to admit to themselves that someone ripped them off. “They [the scammers] keep telling you that the immigration system is very slow, to come back and wait. Only two or three years later do victims actually file a complaint,” he said.
Reyes pointed out the rise in fear among immigrants during the Trump administration. “Immigrants did not want to engage with the government, period,” he said. After losing a significant amount of money, Reyes informed that the fear of further loss in terms of deportation made them mum. “We need immigrants to understand that when they file a complaint, nothing will happen in regard to their immigration situation. We want to help not harm them,” he said.
Red flags should be reported immediately through formal complaints. Reyes said that sometimes, deportation orders are sent to the notario (notary or solicitor) and not to the immigrants themselves. “The solicitors never tell the victims, and then years later they [the victims] get stopped by the police and get into trouble,” he added.
The solutions at hand
Only licensed attorneys and individuals accredited by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) or organizations recognized by the DOJ can offer legal counsel on immigration matters. Cross-referencing legal sources is vital. The DOJ displays a list of legal services providers that have been disbarred or are under disciplinary action. View the list here.
To confirm whether an immigration attorney is a licensed practicing attorney in the State of California and to review their disciplinary records, visit the California State Bar website here. Additionally, to confirm that your immigration legal services provider is a DOJ accredited representative or recognized organization, visit the DOJ – Executive Office for Immigration Review website here.
Complaints about notario fraud can be made irrespective of one’s legal status in the United States. Angelenos can file complaints either through the Office of Immigrant Affairs’s online form or by giving them a call at (800) 593-8222. More information about notario fraud is available here in English, and here in Spanish.