For as long as there have been foreign nationals seeking legal entry into the U.S., there have been predatory businesses seeking to take advantage of immigrants. A specific group of predators, with limited or no training, offer to help foreign nationals file petitions for visas and other immigration applications. These businesses go by various names such as immigration consultants or “notarios.” Notarios practice law without a law license.
Notario is the most commonly used name for these types of companies. While some consultant businesses offer legitimate immigration consulting services recognized by sanctioning government agencies, others violate legal restrictions designed to protect vulnerable immigrants. This is done in the pursuit of collecting large fees. Notarios often claim that their applications are reviewed by a lawyer. More often than not, this is untrue.
In some cases, notarios will promise unsuspecting foreign nationals more than they can deliver, leaving the immigrant with a large bill and without a visa in the process. This page was designed to warn those who might be seeking legal entry into the U.S. about the pitfalls of dealing with immigration consultants such as notarios. It is also designed to help those who might be deciding between hiring a notario or an attorney, consider their options.
The following topics are covered on this page:
- Notario Basics
- What to do if You’ve Been Scammed
- Consulting an Attorney
It’s important to remember that while certain legal concepts are discussed on this page, it is not intended as a substitute for speaking with a qualified immigration attorney. If you have questions about the immigration consulting services offered by notarios, or what to do if you or a loved has been scammed, contact our office to see how we can help.
Notario & Immigration Consultant Basics
Whether a foreign national is seeking to come to the U.S. through a family or work- related visa, there are a number of very specific forms he or she must file with US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Different forms are filled out depending on the type of visa desired.
The visa application process can be complicated and trying, especially for many foreign nationals who don’t speak English and are unfamiliar with the U.S. immigration system. It’s a process that can be challenging even for attorneys.
Though the California Business and Professions Code allows for non-lawyers to provide some immigration consultating services, the law expressly forbids non-lawyers to practice law or represent persons before the Board of Immigration Appeals, and US Citizenship and Immigrant Services.
Under California’s Business and Professions Code, non-lawyers providing immigration consultancy services are limited to specific activities, such as completing federal or state forms, or translating a person’s answers on such forms. The law specifically forbids the immigration consultant from advising the client on how to answer specific questions on the form.
The title notario is controversial because it can be confusing to persons who hail from certain Latin American countries. The term is short for Notario Publico, which translates to notary public. While in the U.S., notary publics are not considered lawyers, in some Latin American countries, they are.
As a result, some immigrants who seek the advice of notarios can become confused about the help they are being offered, and problems can occur when a predatory or dishonest consultant dispenses legal advice in exchange for a fee.
To get an idea of how easy it is for a Notario to cross the line and provide legal advice, consider the multitude of visa options available to foreign nationals seeking to immigrate. By simply suggesting which form to fill out, a Notario could be in violation of state law for providing legal advice.
The problem of unqualified consultants providing immigration advice is hardly a new one. As far back as 2004, the Los Angeles Times wrote about an immigration scam, which exploited confusion over the term Notario, as having “bilked” thousands of Latino immigrants, after they were charged “exorbitant fees”, forced to file frivolous paperwork while spending years waiting to immigrate.
In some cases, the Times reported, immigrants were unknowingly signed up for asylum, which resulted in temporary work permits while the cases were pending adjudication. However, because Mexican nationals are rarely granted political asylum, once the requests were reviewed, they were usually deemed invalid.
Disturbingly, because many of the foreign nationals who seek the services of notarios are in the country illegally, they are less likely to report to the authorities when they are scammed out of fear of being deported.
It’s important to remember, that there is legal recourse for those who believe they have been scammed by a Notario — even those who are not legal immigrants.
Continue reading to learn more about the legal options available.
What to Do if You’ve Been Scammed by a Notario or Immigration Consultant
Because of the training and standards applied to the legal profession, it is usually preferable to speak with an attorney whenever applying for a visa or other immigration document.
However, those who have been taken advantage of by a dishonest notario or immigration consulting service can seek recourse in civil court. The California Business and Professions Code 22445(a)(1) provides up to $100,000 in civil penalties for each violation of the code.
As mentioned in the previous section, those who provide immigration consultant services are required to follow strict guidelines when dealing with clients. For instance, a legitimate consultant must provide a written contract translated into the client’s native language. In addition, signed receipts printed on the business letterhead must also be provided. Perhaps most importantly, any contract between the immigration consultant and client must include a statement in 10-point boldface that the consultant is not an attorney.
Several other requirements apply. In cases where a Notario has failed to follow these requirements, the client could be eligible for financial damages for each violation.
Consulting an Attorney
If you feel either you or a loved one has been taken advantage of by a dishonest notario, contact our immigration lawyer to see if we can help you obtain damages. Regardless of whether you were in the country legally when you contacted the Notorio, you are still entitled to compensation if violations occurred.
If you are considering going with a notorio or other immigration consulting, as opposed to a qualified immigration attorney, remember that federal law is complex, and an attorney trains for several years before specializing in a specific area such as immigration law. Whatever your situation, you want to hire an advocate who is both highly trained and recognized by sanctioning bodies for their skill. To see how we can help, contact our office.