Image by Sarah Medeiros
Americans without close familial ties to first-generation immigrants may understand the citizenship process as a simple matter of filling out the right form, memorizing patriotic trivia from a fifth-grade civics class, and patiently waiting.
The reality is much more complex, a web of bureaucratic minutia and legal pitfalls. In navigating this labyrinth, families sometimes look to “Notarios Publicos” for help, and that’s when things can get especially ugly.
Notarios is a catchall term often used to describe individuals who offer immigrants legal assistance despite lacking the required state-mandated training. In many Latin American countries, notarios must obtain extensive certification, and have far more authority than a notary public in the United States. But for an immigrant from a place like Mexico, a notario in East Boston isn’t likely to provide nearly the same level of service and expertise that she might expect in her hometown.
For every major immigrant population, there are unscrupulous characters who take advantage of cultural misunderstandings surrounding the process of obtaining permission to stay and work in the US. Real immigration attorneys contacted for this story estimate that between 15 and 25 percent of their clients come to them for help fixing a problem caused by a notario or comparable sort of pseudo-lawyer.
“A lot of our clients only have a grade-school education, and they get duped,” says Javier Pico of Pico Law Office in Downtown Boston. “These guys pop out of nowhere. They say they’re cheaper than attorneys. When we get it, we have to undo a lot of damage.”
Last fall, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that grants upwards of five million undocumented immigrants a three-year reprieve from deportation, covering mainly the parents of US citizens and legal residents who have lived here for at least five years and have clean records. The order also lifts the age limit on a 2012 program for immigrants who arrived when they were children. The federal government began accepting applications for deferred status on February 18, and one result has been a predatory feeding frenzy for cash-hungry notarios.
In journalism, we sometimes have to make decisions about when it’s ethical to go undercover. The rule of thumb is that it’s OK so long as there’s no other way to get the story, as was the case last year when I went to experience a night in the now-closed homeless shelter on Long Island in Boston Harbor. On that note, since I am a white United States citizen who will likely never need the services of an immigration attorney, after meeting with several legitimate lawyers, I concoct a scenario in which I have recently married an undocumented woman from Guatemala and need to get her a green card.
TO CATCH A NOTARIO
I start my mission on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain, just west of the Jackson Square MBTA station—an easy place to find businesses offering legal assistance. My first stop is Dorka Travel, a multi-service agency that specializes in immigration law and taxes. According to the plastic sandwich board out front, they also handle travel arrangements, wire transfers, and kitchen appliances.
According to Pico of the Pico Law Office downtown, it’s common for immigration assistance to be one of many tenuously related areas of expertise claimed by such “multi-service” enterprises. Dual offers of immigration and tax aid are particularly fishy, adds Carlos Estrada of Estrada Law Office on Tremont Street. “Those are two of the most complicated types of law.”
The office of Dorka Travel is a located off the side of the Fernandez Beauty & Barber Shop, in a space shared with a taxi dispatcher. The phones ring constantly; people shuffle in and out of the office; soft Latin music plays on a radio in the corner. In a place beyond the immediate ruckus I meet a young woman in a dark blue blazer, sitting behind the largest desk in the room. She’s ostensibly the immigration expert on duty, and I tell her my story …
I recently married a Guatemalan woman who entered the country illegally about a decade ago over the Mexican border. My wife is undocumented, but now that we’re married I need to know how we can get her a green card.
Relatively speaking, Dorka offers bargain basement rates, so it’s easy to see why somebody without a lot of cash to spare would use the company’s services. The translation fee is $25 per page, or you can pay $300 for assistance in the entire immigration process. In comparison, one of the downtown specialists I’ve met says that costs can run upwards of $5,000. That estimate includes $1,490 due the federal government to get the legal ball rolling, but a real immigration law expert’s fee is on its own still prohibitive for working families.
The woman at Dorka makes the process sound extremely simple. At the same time, however, she confuses the name of the form I need, as well as the amount it costs to file with the government. I ask, “Do I need a lawyer for any of this?” She assures me an attorney is only necessary if our waiver request is denied.
There are a variety of ways that people become “undocumented.” Each scenario has its own set of forms for people seeking a green card or work visa, and it costs hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars to file the paperwork, all of which is lost when forms are improperly completed. Sometimes, immigrants only learn of mistakes when an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer knocks on the door.
“There are some lawyers that are trying to tell people that they can apply for a work permit when they’re clearly not eligible,” says Patricia Sobalvarro of Agencia ALPHA, a nonprofit outreach organization for the immigrant community. “When they come to us it’s because they’re trying to fix what notarios have done.”
A few doors down from Dorka Travel is Reyna Services, LLC. From outside of the small, white building an animated LED display flashes, “Immigration.” The inside could also pass for a trailer park management office, the waiting room somewhere between sparse and barren, but with random items you might find inside a Catholic grandmother’s home scattered about. At the main desk there is a bouquet of fake pink roses, a statuette of two children playing sits on the end table in the corner, and a painting of the virgin Mary greets me from the far wall opposite the front entrance.
A woman takes me into her office and listens to my story. Unlike the notario at the first place though, she isn’t willing to touch it. “There is nothing I can do for you,” she says. “You need a lawyer.” She collects my contact information and promises to pass it along to an immigration attorney. I never get a call back.
THE MOST NOTARIOS
I am given a tip about one particularly nefarious con artist by one of the legit lawyers I speak with. According to my source, “She must have a mansion by now with how much she’s stolen.” After several failed attempts to visit this notorious notario at her office in Jamaica Plain, I reach her by phone.
The woman sounds friendly as she listens to the tale about my wife and asks questions. She then walks me through the forms that I would need to complete, and suggests that my wife and I can do most of the work ourselves. If we need her help, she says during the consultation, it would probably cost between $300 and $350, most of which would be for translation services. “It sounds complicated,” she says, “but it’s really not.”
In going through the notes about my trip through Jamaica Plain, what strikes me most is that on a single stretch of Centre Street, I was able to find three different sets of advice for my specific scenario. I thought, How about on the complete opposite side of town? Are there different guidelines in East Boston?
I step out of the MBTA station at Maverick Square in the middle of a Friday. In the back of a small grocery store, past shelves stacked with dried beans and Goya products, is a door with a sign that reads “Immigracion.”
Inside is a brightly lit and sparsely decorated room. Three desks are crammed in, but only one is currently in use. A man turns down the radio and beckons me to sit. He’s a stocky, middle-aged Latino guy with a round face and thinning black hair. Behind him is a white wall decorated with framed certificates for tax preparation, and a large inspirational poster of an eagle superimposed over an American flag that reads “Integrity … True greatness comes when you’re tested.”
I sit next to a retractable screen that separates his corner of the office from the two empty desks. It’s a strange feeling; take away the decorative plants and a coat of paint, and we’re essentially in a stock room. In any case, I offer the Guatemalan wife story, and the stocky man hands me a list of documents I need to gather. There’s also a schedule of fees, which includes the standard $420 needed to apply for residency, though he crosses out the $1,070 fee for a work visa after I hint that my wife is paid under the table. Looking down the list, I see there’s also a line noting $200 in costs for a medical exam, as well as $1,000 for his services.
Down the street I wander into another shop. This one has cell phones for sale along one wall, a travel agency in the opposite corner, and a VIGO desk behind that. A handwritten note in the window tells me that aside from money transfers, VIGO now provides immigration assistance.
I’m told that the person who handles immigration stuff just stepped out for coffee, and so I wait a few minutes until that person returns—the same stocky Latino guy I met earlier. After my most awkward conversation yet I slink away without any answers. Something isn’t right about these places, that much I realize, but unless I attempt to go through the federal immigration process, it seems impossible to detect which notarios are competent and which are total full-of-shit scam artists.
The closest thing to a law banning improper immigration law counseling is an executive order issued by then-governor Mitt Romney in 2003. The measure primarily deals with regulating the conduct of notaries public; buried in the legalese are rules stipulating that a notary cannot use the term “Notario” or “Notario Publico,” as in the more qualified professionals common in Latin America. Notaries also can’t provide legal counseling unless they actually practice law in the commonwealth, nor can they claim to provide help with immigration.
The Romney order is laudable for its acknowledgment of the problem, according to some experts. Nevertheless, the worst penalty for violating the 2003 rules is loss of official notary certification. State Sen. Cynthia Creem of Newton attempted to improve the situation during the last legislative session through a law that would have attached stiff fines and the threat of jail time for those who fraudulently provide immigration law services. But while versions of the bill passed the House and the Senate and landed on the governor’s desk in January, Deval Patrick, a lame duck with only two days left in office, failed to sign the bill. Back to square one, Creem has since refiled the bill in the current session.
In lieu of swift action from lawmakers, the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers might penalize a lawyer for improper conduct. They have no leverage for punishing non-lawyers though, according to Liz Cannon, a Boston-based immigration attorney. She says victims, who almost always have questionable legal statuses, are reluctant to risk going to authorities to report scam artists. Cannon asks, “Why put your neck out when you know nothing will happen?”
Despite the difficulty of getting victims to come forward, immigration scam artists do occasionally get nabbed, but usually only after acting like a bandit feeding a meth habit. In November 2012, Massachusetts prosecutors went after May Woo Lei, the proprietor of Sky Energy Travel, Inc. in Chinatown. After numerous complaints of fraud from watchdogs at the Chinese Progressive Association, a Suffolk County Grand Jury indicted Woo on 27 counts of theft, alleging that she collected $53,000 in bogus immigration services and $42,000 by defrauding travel clients.
More recently, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office identified a Waltham man after he allegedly presented himself as a certified immigration specialist, and unlawfully charged hundreds and in some cases thousands of dollars for services he was unqualified to provide. As of this writing, he was slapped on the wrist and ordered to stop giving legal advice.
“Preventing, investigating, and prosecuting notarios and others who take advantage of immigrants is a priority of our office,” writes Christopher Loh, spokesperson for the attorney general, in an email. “We have brought multiple cases, both civilly and criminally, against those who committed fraud, and have done extensive outreach to immigrant communities and advocates. We ask anyone who believes they may be a victim of these crimes or consumer fraud to notify our office.”
It’s easy to see the attractiveness, especially for those on a tight budget, of having an expert on your side for just a couple hundred bucks. But while there is money to be saved, clients of notarios likely have to settle for incompetence or predatory practices.
“They charge a lot less than a lawyer does, but it’s a scam,” says Alexandra Peredo Carrion of the Washington, DC-based American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). “Notarios are difficult to stop because their victims are afraid of deportation, so they avoid turning to law enforcement. Victims are also less likely to risk themselves when there is not a guarantee that the notario would face negative repercussions due to the lack of regulation.”
“It’s hard to get a grasp on it,” says Sarang Sekhavat of the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition. “We tend to hear about it from people after they’ve been taken advantage of. If they don’t have anyone to turn to, there’s no way to find out about it. A lot of times these people pop up and disappear. It can be really hard to find someone.”
With no certifications, the notarios can easily skip town without any paper trail beyond an abandoned Facebook page or listing in the yellow pages. The lucky victims only lose money. As for people taken in by the likes of Woo in Chinatown, they lose the cash, sure, but even worse is that their paperwork isn’t likely to be filed, potentially setting them back years. I may have had a hunch about the problem, but until I jumped in, I wasn’t even close to understanding the complexity of the ordeal. While it’s hard to say out loud, I’m thankful that I’m not really in a situation in which I might have to rely on a notario. As one lawyer put it to me, one wrong answer on a form can cost you thousands of dollars and even deportation.
“It’s not just taking their money,” says Pico, “their whole lives are ruined.”