Many people in the immigrant community look to notaries for assistance in immigration matters. But notaries are not lawyers. This can be the source of confusion for many immigrants, and lead to problems down the road including loss of legal status and deportation.
There have been a number of complaints by Hispanic consumers who have been harmed by notaries and other nonlawyers advertising assistance and advice in immigration matters. To clear up some of the confusion, some state bar associations provide information to educate people on the differences between a lawyer and a notary public. Lawyers are subject to educational requirements, must undergo a moral character investigation, and pass examinations testing legal understanding and ethics. Additionally, if a lawyer gives erroneous advice, they are subject to full legal repercussions.
Some notaries and fake lawyers seek to profit from immigrants who are unfamiliar with the legal system, and often facing high pressure situations relating to their legal status. The need for affordable, legal assistance has made some immigrants easy targets for small, mobile neighborhood notaries.
One source of the problem is that notaries in other countries, particularly Latin America, have much more legal authority than they do in the United States. Many immigrants assume that a “notario” or notary, can provide legal advice. And some the notaries do nothing to dispel this mistake. People who believe they are following the legal process end up with no representation, despite paying hefty fees.
A story in the New York Times detailed the story of Mario de la Rosa, who engaged who he thought was a lawyer for his immigration hearing. His representative, Ms. Carrasco was not a lawyer, and left him to face court without representation. The Illinois Attorney General subsequently filed suit against Ms. Carrasco claiming misrepresentation of herself as an immigration lawyer.
The Tri-City Herald in Washington recently reported on Jose Antonio Martinez, a notary who pled guilty to taking money to perform legal services. However, he never did any actual work for the the people who came to him, with some of them ending up deported because of his misrepresentation. He even threatened to call immigration and have his clients deported if they did not pay for his legal services.
Some lawmakers are attempting to address the growing problem of notaries who practice law without a license. Governor McAuliffe of Virginia has signed a bill that prohibits notaries who are not attorneys from offering legal and immigration advice. A media advisory notes there have been cases of notaries fraudulently charging thousands of dollars to provide misleading advice.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) has also warned of unauthorized immigration services. They advise consumers to follow the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) tips on avoiding immigration scams, specifically, don't go to a notario, notario público or notary public for legal advice.
“While the public may be tempted to rush out and enlist the services of anyone willing to take on their case, they should research and double check a person's credentials first,” said BBB President and CEO Matthew Fehling.