Wednesday, February 07, 2007


From the AP this week:

When Salvadoran immigrant Irma Yolanda Membreno-Aleman wanted to apply for temporary asylum, she did what she would have done for any legal matter back home: She went to see a "notario publico."

It was a lost-in-translation mistake that cost her thousands of dollars, a rejection of her petition and loss of her work authorization and her job, a lawsuit claims.

In much of Latin America, most notary publics are also lawyers. In the United States, a notary public is not a lawyer and cannot give legal advice; he can administer oaths and witness signatures, and that's it.

The difference has allowed scam artists to prey on immigrants with limited English skills and little understanding of the American legal system by misrepresenting themselves as lawyers, immigration lawyers say.

It is a growing problem. But prosecutors rarely bring cases against these scam artists, in part because the victims are often in this country illegally and are afraid to come forward.

This wastes the time of government employees who have to sift through frivolous applications, and it can ruin the lives of immigrants who think they are paying to legalize their status, but instead are being swindled by scam artists. Preying on immigrants is a thriving business in New York City, and there is no shortage of “legal document preparation firms” or “notarios” with shifting addresses and rotating staff to rip people off. Recourse of the victims is severely limited, and in my experience, most of the time these shady operations are never held to account.

In Georgia, the Colombian wife of state Sen. Curt Thompson was almost deported recently after her dealings with a notary whom she said she believed was an attorney. The wife, Sascha Herrera, came to the U.S. on a visitor visa in 2003. She applied for an extension through a "notario," Tomas Vilela, but she said he filed an asylum application without her knowledge.

Because Herrera was unaware of the application, she missed repeated asylum hearings and the court issued an order for her deportation. She went into hiding briefly until a judge agreed last month to drop the deportation action.

This sort of thing happens all the time. But not everyone is the wife of a state senator, and many people find themselves in deportation proceedings or living in the shadows, unable to legalize their status.

One way to stop this kind of fraud is to promote better education within the immigrant communities. New immigrants trust people from their home countries who speak their language and seem to know how to navigate the immigration system; unfortunately, their trust is often betrayed. These wolves should be exposed within the communities so new arrivals are not channeled into disastrous situations.

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