Immigration paperwork can be really confusing – endless pages of forms, lawyer fees, and legalese.
Undocumented immigrants with limited English – and in many cases low education levels – face tougher obstacles when navigating the immigration system.
There are a lot of people out there trying to take advantage of all the confusion – and make a quick buck in the process. They are often known as notarios.
Angela Fernandez works toward helping the public solve immigration issues. She’s the director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, a nonprofit in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Fernandez said the process can be long and daunting for new immigrants applying for citizenship.
For every organization like hers that offers free, quality help, said Fernandez, there are many more that prey on immigrants.
“We know that well over fifty percent of individuals that come through here have had some sort of interaction with an individual who has promised them legal status but they weren’t able to help them with it,” says Fernandez.
Immigration fraud has many faces. There are the dramatic stories of big-time scams – immigrants cheated out of tens of thousands of dollars. But more commonly, it takes the much more banal form of work done poorly by people who aren’t licensed.
“If you make a mistake on your taxes – the worst that can happen is you have to pay a fine. When you make a mistake in any kind of immigration application, you can be torn from your family and your community,” Fernandez says.
Notarios advertise their services all along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, New York (Photo: Sarah Rocha)
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
All over immigrant enclaves such as this one there are signs, banners and flyers offering help with immigration. They often advertise as a “notario público” – Spanish for “notary public.”
Valeria Treves runs a non-profit in Queens called New Immigrant Community Empowerment, or NICE for short. She said that in Latin America a notario público is actually a very high end attorney.
“Many Latin American immigrants actually confuse notary public for notarios publicos, and there are notarios out there that take advantage of that confusion and misrepresent themselves as lawyers,” Treves says.
By law, notarios cannot provide legal advice. A study from NICE titled “Dreams and Schemers” found that over 20 percent of the notarios in Queens advertised legal services. It also found that these businesses are required to post signs that state “not an attorney.” Treves says that business aren’t displaying those signs.
There are a few things notarios are allowed to do. For example, they can procure documents for immigrants, set up appointments, and they are allowed to help fill out immigration form with answers given by the clients. “But it’s a very fine line between filling out a form and giving people advice,” says Treves.
A VISIT FOR THE NOTARIO
We visited one notario in Washington Heights named Jay Mercado. He runs a business called “New Age Multi Services.”
Mercado said it’s true that a lot of notarios are scammers – they overcharge for simple services, or promise they can get work authorization for people who are not eligible for it. But he said he’s one of the good guys, doing honest work, and that in most cases, the forms are easy to fill out correctly.
“Like everything—once you learn the procedure, it’s like changing your car oil – you learn the steps and it’s boom boom boom,” Mercado says.
But sometimes, it’s more like “boom, boom… oops we messed up your papers.”
Immigrants receive legal help at a Queens non-profit called New Immigrant Community Empowerment (Photo: Sarah Rocha)
“THEY TOOK ADVANTAGE OF HIM”
Recently, Juan Ramirez’ father – a long time legal permanent resident – decided to apply for citizenship. A social worker referred his father to a storefront church in Upper Manhattan that runs an immigration service on the side.
“They took advantage of him,” Ramirez says. “They filled out his applications poorly and they charged him $125 for it. A lot of questions were left blank, a lot of questions were answered incorrectly.”
Most gravely – Juan’s father had some legal problems years ago that the preparer who submitted his application didn’t include. It put his application in jeopardy.
“There are no guarantees and my father got a guarantee… and it could have ended badly. My father could be deported, he could be in removal, my father could have gotten his citizenship – it doesn’t matter. They got their $125 and that’s the bottom line for them,” Ramirez said.
When Juan Ramirez tried to follow-up on his father’s case, his questions were avoided and phone calls went un-returned.
Ramirez’ father should have been referred to a lawyer. Despite the evasive behavior, the church may not have done anything against the law. It was legal for the church to fill out his father’s forms, so long as they didn’t give any guidance.
“And that’s part of the problem,” says Valeria Treves of NICE. She thinks unlicensed people shouldn’t be able to do this delicate work. But as long as they can, they will.
“We live in a capitalist society and people will extract a dollar anyway they can, and this is identified as something people really want, they really want papers, so you’ll find providers to provide that. Some that are legitimate, and some that are not legitimate,” says Treves.
Notarios in New York City often are located in close proximity with actual law offices, heightening the confusion for immigrants looking for professional legal help. (Photo: Sarah Rocha)
“A HOLE IN THE SYSTEM”
Immigrant advocates are split on the issue. Some want to train the notarios to do better; others want to shut them down completely.
Last week, the New York State assembly passed a bill creating new regulations for notarios – forcing them to provide clear contracts and offer no-questions-asked refunds, for example. The bill also establishes “notario fraud” as a crime. Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign it into law soon.
But Angela Fernandez from the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights said the problem goes deeper than anything the courts can solve. She said it’s systemic.
“There are very few resources that can guide people through regularizing their status. So, because we don’t have those resources it’s very easy for these storefronts to pop up,” says Fernandez.
She said funding from the city for organizations like hers has gone down over the years. Most immigrants simply can’t afford to go to a lawyer, and there’s just not enough free help to go around. So, the notarios fill the vacuum.
Despite these challenges, immigrants do their best to figure out how to navigate the immigration maze. Back at the waiting room at Fernandez’ Washington Heights offices, about a dozen people wait to speak with trained paralegals. Gustavo, who declined to give his last name because of his status, says his grandmother warned him about notarios after she was scammed twice.
“Take it slow, talk to different people,” Gustavo said. “And don’t rush into anything.”
Cover photo by Marlon Bishop
Additional reporting and production assistance by Sarah Rocha