Big changes in federal immigration policy are big business for notarios, consultants who seemingly possess the legal power to help immigrants secure deferred deportations or work permits. Notarios, however, are not lawyers. They cannot represent immigrants before immigration courts. They're often unqualified to offer the very legal aid they promise in exchange for fees many families can barely afford.
Cities with large immigrant communities often see a rise in such dubious businesses whenever immigration reforms are back in the news, raising the hopes of residents and the need for real legal aid. This will no doubt be the case in the coming months, too, as millions of immigrants try to decipher the president's executive action granting broad relief from deportations.
"In all of our offices across the city, we hear stories on a regular basis of people spending outrageous sums of money on false hopes — and being tricked, basically," says Daniel Coates, a lead organizer with the group Make the Road New York in New York City. "People are most vulnerable when there’s less knowledge out there."
In Los Angeles, a city with a half a million undocumented immigrants, officials have already heard stories of residents misled by offers of legal assistance with the new executive action — even before the president announced what it would entail.
"It’s a huge issue," says Linda Lopez, the chief of the Office of Immigrant Affairs in the Los Angeles mayor's office. "We have notarios literally on most of our street corners, all over certain high-immigrant density neighborhoods."
This is a stark testament to the complicated path ahead for the president's immigration reprieve: New opportunities available to immigrants are easily accompanied by attempts to defraud them. There are businesses that exist primarily for the purpose of exploiting the mass confusion mixed with high expectations around an offer like legal immigration status.
Notarios may charge $500 to put you in line for Obama's new green cards (that is not what Obama is offering), or far more than that to usher your family through naturalization (even if no one in your household qualifies). The often operate out of storefronts also selling phone cards, or international shipping, or — in this photo taken by the American Bar Association — fried chicken.
Meanwhile, the pro-bono lawyers and legitimate legal clinics capable of navigating confusing immigration policies — separating immigrants who qualify from those who don't, and tracking all of the documentation they need to prove it — are already often overwhelmed with cases.
"They are taxed right now," says Roxana Olivas, the executive director of the Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs in Washington, D.C. When the president announced deportation deferrals in 2012 for children brought to the country by their parents (commonly known as "DACA"), those service providers helped about 500 residents in D.C. apply. "With the president’s announcement, I think we’re going to get a lot, lot more."
Cities are left with the grittier work — and he financial cost — of enacting this part of the president's new policy: translating it for bewildered residents, steering them away from abuse, making sure that all of the fine print follows Thursday's headlines.
New York City spent $13.7 million funding local organizations to provide community outreach and legal services to help residents navigate DACA. The city spent another $322,000 on its own subway ads and leaflets trying to direct residents to legitimate information and free legal aid.
For the last two years, the city of Chicago has been running sting operations of notarios. Inspectors have repeatedly found businesses in violation of tightened city laws on immigration assistance providers. They were selling unauthorized legal advice, or charging exorbitant fees, or promising results, as the city put it, "that would be impossible to obtain."
"We do not allow immigrants to be victims of fraudulent service providers," says Tonantzin Carmona, the director of Chicago's Office of New Americans. "We want to make sure if people want to speak out, if they want to get information about how to become permanent residents, that they’re not taken advantage of."
Much of the confusion notarios are able to exploit stems from the word "notario" itself. In some Latin American countries, the term describes someone who's a licensed legal practitioner. In the U.S., it's closer to the equivalent of a notary. That means that notarios aren't attorneys, or legal assistants, or even qualified to prepare a legal will. The American Bar Association, which runs a Fight Notario Fraud program, warns that notarios may even permanently damage an immigrant's case.
For groups like Make the Road New York, warnings about notarios are part of any community workshop or outreach campaign.
"It’s totally standard fare," Coates says. "'Here’s the news, here’s what we know, here’s what it is — anybody who tells you otherwise is probably trying to take you for a ride.' Invariably, someone will stand up and say ‘this happened to my brother, this happened to me.’"