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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Immigration debate has attorneys on alert for fraud

By Psyche Pascual
Staff Writer

Although Congress is still shaping a workable immigration reform package, experts say communities are already seeing signs of what could develop into a torrent of immigration fraud in California.

Lawmakers are still debating legislation that would prevent people from coming to the United States illegally and offer citizenship to some 11 million immigrants already living here without authorization. But many fear that unscrupulous immigration consultants, who sometimes call themselves notarios, are using the hope of its passage to prey on immigrants seeking legal help. They urge lawyers to be prepared.

“We’re already hearing these anecdotal complaints that consumers are being asked to pay to get on a waiting list so they can get to the front of the line,” said Rigo Reyes, chief of investigations for Los Angeles County’s Department of Consumer Affairs, which investigates complaints about notarios. Reyes was part of a group of attorneys and law enforcement agencies that met at State Bar offices in Los Angeles in March to discuss efforts to limit what could be a rising tide of immigration fraud. Attorneys “may be having to clean up the mess that somebody else creates.”

For decades, immigration consultants have advertised their services as “notarios.” A “notario publico” is a Spanish term used in some Latin American countries to describe people who have received training that is similar or equivalent to a law license and can represent others in government proceedings. They bill themselves as experts in immigration, tax preparation, family law and other matters. Under California law, notarios can help immigrants with translating and submitting forms, but they can’t appear in court or give legal advice or they could be prosecuted for the unauthorized practice of law.

But many have complained for years that notarios illegally practice law. They often promise to get political asylum or citizenship for clients who don’t qualify. Some even charge fees that are higher than those of immigration lawyers. Since legislation was introduced in Congress, many notarios have actually stepped up their activities, said Reid Trautz, director of American Immigration Lawyers Association’s (AILA) practice and professionalism center in Washington D.C.

 In fact, on the day the bill was introduced in the Capitol, Trautz said, “there was a notary handing out flyers saying ‘Get in line and take advantage of the new law’ even though the law hadn’t been passed. We know this is happening. We hear from members this is growing in anticipation [of immigration reform].”

Trautz said attorneys who work with immigrant clients can make sure they are ready for the scams to come. Here’s a list of what they can do:

Learn about what notarios can and can’t do. Under California law, immigration consultants can help consumers fill out paperwork by translating and submitting forms. They are required to give clients a written contract, register and file a $50,000 bond with the Secretary of State. Anyone can check on an immigration consultant’s bond online at or call 916-653-3984.

Stock up on information about notarios and other types of immigration fraud for consumers and attorneys. Various organizations, including California’s Office of the Attorney General, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), AILA and the American Bar Association all have websites that describe notario fraud and how to prevent it. Much of the material is on the web:

  • The state Office of the Attorney General has information on immigration consultants in seven languages on its website.
  • The FTC also has information about immigration fraud on its website, including a wallet-sized card detailing how to spot scams that target immigrants.
  • The CIS website has brochures and posters in 14 languages that describe immigration scams and can be downloaded.
  • The American Bar Association, as part of its “Fight Notario Fraud” campaign has training materials, case law and other resources for attorneys on its website.
  • As part of its Stop Notario Fraud campaign, AILA has a list of state immigration laws, lists of disciplined consultants on its website and state-by-state definitions of the unauthorized practice of law.

Help consumers document and report immigration fraud to the authorities. Authorities urge lawyers to help immigrants report scams, particularly when they lose money. But many immigrants are afraid to report fraud because they fear being deported. By acting as a go-between immigrants and authorities, “attorneys can reassure them and help them write a statement about the fraud,” said Reyes, the chief consumer affairs investigator with Los Angeles County. “The authorities are willing to work with people no matter what immigration status is.”

Once the person has written a statement, complaints of immigration fraud can be filed with local district attorneys’ offices or with the state Attorney General’s office through its online consumer complaint form. Complaints can also be filed with the FTC by going to or calling 877-382-4357.

Be on the watch for those committing fraud. Immigration consultants are also required to post signs in their offices and in advertisements stating they are not lawyers. But immigration experts said they know of consultants who say they can do more.

“Once a week we’ll see some papers that were poorly prepared or incorrect,” said Mary Beth Kaufman, a San Francisco attorney and vice chairwoman of Northern California chapter of AILA.

In one recent case, a couple came to Kaufman after losing money to notario who promised to file documents for citizenship for the wife. After months of silence from the immigration consultant, they finally demanded their paperwork back, but lost money. Yet they never filed a complaint for fear of being deported. Kaufman now keeps track of immigration consultants who have committed fraud, “so we know who they are,” she said.