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Notarios: Immigration Help That Hurts

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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

DREAMers Rally For In-State Tuition

If a couple of states legalizing pot is significant, the number of states which have approved in-state tuition for undocumented students, or DREAMers, is a tidal wave. And for states, education of immigrants can mean big business–and big tax revenue. From Minnesota, to Florida, to Utah, we hear from students what affordable college means to them. And then we learn about one state-Georgia-where students are fighting for their educations.

 

 

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Elly Yu is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta. She has reported for WNYC, WABE, and the New York Daily News, among others. She is a 2014 immigration reporting fellow with the Institute for Justice and Journalism. Elly has a master’s in journalism from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor’s in international relations from the University of Southern California.

 

 

 

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

 

 

 

Serving The (Still) Uninsured

The Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, resulted in millions more people being signed up for health insurance. But some folks are still uninsured, especially the undocumented. Reporter Lisa Morehouse takes us to places in California where the struggle to care for–and insure–undocumented Californians is still going on.

 

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Lisa-Morehouse-150x150Lisa Morehouse is an award-winning independent public radio and print journalist, who’s filed for KQED’s The California Report, NPR’s Latino USA and All Things Considered, Edutopia magazine and McSweeney’s. Her reporting has taken her from Samoan traveling circuses to Mississippi Delta classrooms to the homes of Lao refugees in rural Iowa.  She’s currently working on After The Gold Rush: The Future of Rural California, an audio documentary website and series. A former public school teacher, Morehouse also works with at-risk youth to produce radio diaries.

 

 

Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Patrick Pelster

Friends As Close As Family

Friends can be as close as family. In rural Alabama, two people who needed support managed to find each other. Fred is a gay male pastor. Gwen is a bisexual Latina activist. When a touch anti-immigration law passed in Alabama three years ago, they found themselves relying on each other.

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Ashley Cleek is a radio reporter and producer living in Birmingham, Alabama. Before moving down South, Ashley reported stories in Turkey, Ukraine, India, and Russia for American, German and British radio.  Her stories have appeared on radio shows like The World and Marketplace and on websites like PBS’s Tehran  Bureau, Global Post, and the Atlantic.

 

 

 

 

 

Surviving The Mexican Revolution

Some lessons are learned in school. Other lessons are taught in the home. Or more specifically, in the kitchen. Two generations of women  - a mother and daughter – remember what they learned from Jesusita, who fled Mexico for Texas during the Mexican Revolution. She was the matriarch that made them the women they are today.

 

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McClurgLesley McClurg is a reporter and producer for Colorado Public Radio’s daily interview program, “Colorado Matters.” She came to CPR after getting her start in public radio as a freelance reporter and producer for KUOW in Seattle, Washington.In addition to her work as a journalist, Lesley also has extensive experience in documentary filmmaking and writing. A seven-time Emmy Award nominee, she won an Emmy Award in 2009 for the documentary, “Green Prison Reform.” Lesley holds a bachelor’s degree in mass communications from Louisiana State University

 

 

 

Photo of immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution, courtesy of U.S. History Scene

 

 

 

 

#1418 – A Latino History Of The U.S.

Before you head out for a Cinco de Mayo margarita, take a trip around the country with host Maria Hinojosa to learn about Latino history. Hear about the patriotic celebrations of Laredo, Texas andthe first colony in the US—it’s not where you think it is. Also: could Zorro be the first American superhero? A high school class in East LA learns about the Chicano movement. And just where did the term “Hispanic” come from?

Feature photo courtesy of Mimictrash

What Is “Reasonable Distance”?

The border patrol is best known for working in the Southwest. But regulations authorize them to operate within a “reasonable distance” of 100 miles of any border–creating a zone the ACLU claims is a  “Constitution Free Zone.” We hear from people who experience border patrol checkpoints and complain of harassment and racial profiling. And on the flip side, we hear from a border patrol agent about the difficulties of balancing enforcement with community policing.

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Check out additional information about Constitution Free Zones here.

Feature Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

 

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ACValdezA.C. Valdez is Latino USA’s Senior Producer. A.C. Valdez comes to Latino USA by way of public radio shows like America Abroad, The Diane Rehm Show, WAMU-FM’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show, and Tell Me More. He’s worked with reporters from around the world, coordinated performances with groups like The Noisettes, and done in-depth work on the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. A native of Washington, D.C., A.C. Is a graduate of Emerson College.

 

 

 

Jorge Narvaez: Youtube Star Turned Immigration Activist

One in four Latinos say they personally know someone who has been detained or deported by the federal government in the past year. For Jorge Narvaez, that someone is his mom, who is currently being detained in Arizona. Jorge became Youtube famous when he uploaded a video of him and his 6 year old daughter, Alexa, singing “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes.”

 

 

Since then, they’ve been on the Ellen Degeneres Show, America’s Got Talent and have starred in a Hyundai commercial.

 

 

Jorge is using his social media platform to bring attention to his mom’s case, and to talk about the hundreds of thousands of mothers being held in immigration detention, most who have committed minor crimes or no crimes at all.

 

Photo courtesy of Jorge Narvaez

The Other Border: Puerto Rico’s Seas

There’s no fence to divide it. There are no bridges to cross or checkpoints to be checked at. There’s no desert to lose oneself in.

The other border is a 60 mile stretch of ocean between the island of Hispaniola – shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti – and the US commonwealth of Puerto Rico, known as the Mona Passage.

The Mona Passage is the main route for unauthorized immigration to Puerto Rico, mostly from the Dominican Republic. The migrants are brought over by smugglers in small wooden boats called yolas. Each boat can be packed with 100 people or more.

US Customs and Border Protection aid a group of migrants (Photo: US Customs and Border Protection).

Undocumented migrants arrive in Puerto Rico (Photo: US Customs and Border Protection).

 

 “THE MONA IS TREACHEROUS”

“The Mona is treacherous,” says US Coast Guard Captain Drew Pearson, the man in charge of patrolling the Mona. “It can be nearly calm one minute, and then have 8-10 foot seas the next minute. And that can lead to a boat capsizing or people being ejected into the water.”

For migrants, the chance to dramatically better their lives makes the journey worth the high risk. Puerto Rico is poorer than Mississippi, the poorest state, but it’s still almost five times wealthier than the Dominican Republic.

DIFFICULT DECISIONS

Before immigrating to Puerto Rico 10 years ago, domestic worker Altagracia Pablo had been living in deep poverty in a rural region of the Dominican Republic. “We didn’t even have a house – it collapsed in a storm, and we were sleeping wherever people would let us,” she says.

She made the difficult decision to leave her two daughters and look for a better life in Puerto Rico. She borrowed $1500 to pay the smugglers. They told her to pack a single change of clothes and brought her to Miches, a town on the eastern edge of the island.

The journey took 28 hours. She remembers vomiting over and over again. And there were other problems.

“Water leaked into the gas supply, there were problems with the motor. There were fights between passengers with knives and bottles,” she says. “But in the end, thank god, we made it safely.”

US Customs and Border Protection aid a group of migrants (Photo: US Customs and Border Protection).

US Customs and Border Protection aid a group of migrants (Photo: US Customs and Border Protection).

 

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

Altagracia arrived undetected by the authorities, but had she been caught, she might have ended up at the Border Patrol station in Aguadilla, a few hours west of San Juan, where migrants who are apprehended are taken to get processed.

“The best analogy is a door,” says Jeffery Quiñones, a communications officer for US Customs and Border Protection.  “You have to knock on the door and say what your purpose is. If you come to a place that’s not the door, it makes it a crime punishable with immigration law.”

A group of Haitian migrants, just arrived from the sea, await processing at the Border Patrol station. (Photo: Marlon Bishop)

A group of Haitian migrants, just arrived from the sea, await processing at the Border Patrol station. (Photo: Marlon Bishop)

 

THE DEPORTED

While I’m at the station, a new group of migrants is brought in, just picked up from the sea.

One of them, a Dominican man in handcuffs I’ll call Pedro, had lived undocumented in Puerto Rico for 11 years, working as a welder. One day while he was playing dominoes outside, he was picked up by immigration agents and sent back to the DR.

Since being deported, he’s tried to return to Puerto Rico five times. Each time the boat turned back due to ad weather. Finally, this time he made it across, but his vessel was caught by the Coast Guard. As a repeat migrant, he’ll be prosecuted, and could serve jail time.

“TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN”

Pedro shrugged off his misfortune. “You take a risk knowing you will either win or lose. Either way – amen. They’re two sides of the same coin,” he says.

 Most of the other migrants at the station aren’t Dominican, however, they’re Haitian. They look scared and exhausted as they wolf down plates of rice and beans.

Their presence reflects the changes in immigration patterns to Puerto Rico. Recently, fewer Dominicans are arriving as the Dominican economy improves. At the same time, there’s been an explosion in Haitian migrants. In 2006, only two Haitians were apprehended by Border Patrol. Last year, the number was 600.

WET FOOT, DRY FOOT

The reason so many Haitians are crossing the Mona is what amounts to a de-facto “wet foot, dry foot” policy. When Haitian migrants reach American soil, including the tiny outlying islands that are part of Puerto Rico, US immigration authorities allow them to begin asylum proceedings based on the requirement of “credible fear” of persecution in Haiti.

Those asylum proceedings can take years to resolve, and having an open case allows you to stay and, in many cases, work in the US in the meantime. But if the migrants are caught at sea, even within American waters, they are turned back to Haiti.

As word spreads in Haiti that migrants arriving in Puerto Rico are being allowed to stay, more and more are showing up. The possibility of asylum has created a cruel reality: you’re allowed to live in the United States, if you can make it here alive.

 

Photo 5: The rectory at Father Olin Pierre’s church in San Juan has become a makeshift refugee center for Haitian migrants. (Photo: Marlon Bishop)

Photo 5: The rectory at Father Olin Pierre’s church in San Juan has become a makeshift refugee center for Haitian migrants. (Photo: Marlon Bishop)

 

HELPING THE WEAK

The Haitians who do make it find help from Father Olin Pierre, a Haitian priest in San Juan.

“It’s a main role of a priest to help the weak,” says Father Olin. “And, they’re my people.”

Puerto Rico has no system in place for dealing with Haitian arrivals, so Father Olin has taken up the slack and turned his church into a makeshift refugee camp. Now, whenever a new Haitian boat comes in, authorities take the migrants straight here.

Cots are laid out all along the floor of the rectory. Women cook a meal of seafood as the guys watch a DVD on a portable player. One of them is 27-year-old William Joseph, who witnessed tragedy in the crossing.

“The trip was not easy,” says Joseph. The waters were rough as they were approaching land, and the Dominican smuggler forced his passengers out of the boat so he could head back quickly. They would have to swim the rest of the way. “But some of us didn’t know how to swim. I tried to save some of them too but… in the end we have five people missing.”

“They had already arrived,” says Father Olin, shaking his head. “They had a bright future ahead of them.” He trails off.

“IT’S LIKE PLAYING THE LOTTERY”

Five of Joseph’s companions drowned. Nobody knows how many migrant bodies lie at the bottom of the Mona Passage. Estimates vary – from single digits to the thousands.

“It’s like playing the lottery,” says Father Olin. For the winners who make it to Puerto Rico, and on to Olin’s church, life in the continental US is so close they can touch it. Olin raises money from his congregation to buy them tickets to Miami or New York, where family members are waiting for them. Almost no one stays in Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile, Dominican immigrants, who are generally not granted the “credible fear” status needed to start asylum proceedings, can’t just zip of to the US. Many do try, however. Flights to the mainland are considered domestic, so Dominican migrants just need a fake ID to get on a plane. But, it’s risky. Most choose to remain and work in Puerto Rico, even if they are undocumented. Journalist Carmelo Ruiz says the island completely relies on the Dominican community to function.

“It’s the same dynamic with immigrants in the United States,” says Ruiz. “They do a lot of the worst work and if they left all of a sudden – who’s going to fix my car? Who’s going to mow my lawn? Who’s going to work in construction? I don’t know what would happen but it probably wouldn’t be good.”

 ONCE YOU’VE MADE IT

However, immigration in Puerto Rico doesn’t seem to stir up as much controversy as it does on the mainland.

“Illegal immigration is not necessarily an issue of public concern,” says Jeffery Quiñones, from US Customs and Border Patrol. “There’s no sense that there’s a conflict about their presence in the country.”

Kelvis Polo, the owner of a discount clothing shop in San Juan agrees – the presence of the Dominican just isn’t a big deal.

“Everywhere, you’ll find a few people who are racist,” he says. “But you don’t really see much of that here. You see it more in the States.”

Photo 2: Dominican immigrant Altagracia Pablo poses with her flag. She left dire poverty and immigrated to Puerto Rico 10 years ago. (Photo: Marlon Bishop)

Dominican immigrant Altagracia Pablo poses with her flag. She left dire poverty and immigrated to Puerto Rico 10 years ago. (Photo: Marlon Bishop)

 

“PUERTO RICO, I LOVE YOU”

Still, others I spoke to paint a more nuanced picture – Dominicans are the butts of a lot of jokes, and you might hear Puerto Ricans complaining about Dominican moving into the neighborhood. And, with no legal recourse to turn to, labor abuses are common.

“They treat you differently,” says domestic worker Altagracia Pablo. “You can’t complain about anything.

She says employers sometimes try to take advantage of her and make her do more work than she’s paid for. That kind of unfair treatment can make her pine for home. But overall, she says, life in Puerto Rico has been good to her.

“My dream isn’t to go back to the Dominican Republic. It’s to pledge allegiance to this flag, to the United States,” she says. “Truthfully, Puerto Rico, I love you.”

UPDATE 3/21/14:

A previous version of this article stated that Haitian migrants are allowed to stay in Puerto Rico because of a TPS (Temporary Protected Status) for Haiti, as our reporter was originally told by US Customs and Border Protection officials in Puerto Rico. Haitians who have resided in the US continuously since 2011 are still permitted to stay in the US under TPS through 2016, but new arrivals are not granted TPS.

However, Haitians arriving in Puerto Rico by boat are currently being allowed to stay with a “notice to appear” before an immigration court on the US mainland and request asylum status. This occurs if the migrant claims “credible fear” of returning to their country of origin.

The de facto situation on the ground in Puerto Rico is that Haitian migrants are being allowed to stay, while Dominican migrants caught on land or sea are removed to the Dominican Republic.

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Marlon Bishop HeadshotMarlon Bishop is a radio producer and journalist with a focus on Latin America, New York City, music and the arts. He got his start in radio producing long-form documentaries on Latin music history for the public radio program Afropop Worldwide. After a stint reporting for the culture desk at New York Public Radio (WNYC), Marlon spent several years writing for MTV Iggy, MTV”s portal for global music and pop culture. Marlon has also lived and traveled all over Latin America, reporting stories as a freelancer for NPR, Studio 360, The World, the Village Voice, Billboard and Fusion, among other outlets. He is currently a staff Producer for Latino USA.

Snow In Africa: A Puerto Rican’s Musical Dream

By the time he was twenty-one, J.T. Lopez had the kind of success many musicians can only dream of. He was a highly sought after session player in his native Puerto Rico, playing gigs and touring with some of the island’s top musicians. But he gave it all up to follow his own beat.

Photo by Maria Loewenstein

Get a peek of J.T.’s new band, Snow In Africa.

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photo_dbockDiane Bock produces stories for public radio. She’s inspired by this quote from Pete Seeger: “The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”

 

 

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