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Archive for the ‘Law’ Category

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.

Notario MAn

Notarios advertise their services all along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, New York (Photo: Sarah Rocha)


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.


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)


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.

Notario sign

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)


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

Why Should Unions Support Immigration Reform?

You might not expect organized labor to advocate for immigration reform. But AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka tells us why he and his unions are making a push for reform to happen, and happen this year.

Photo courtesy of Flickr

Richard-L.Trumka-AFL-CIO-President_mediumRichard Trumka is the president of the AFL-CIO, a national federation of labor organizations.



This Bill Of Rights Is Going To Change My Life

Nannies, housekeepers, and elder care workers are excluded from federal benefits, but California is the third state after New York and Hawaii to enact a bill of rights for domestic workers. Reporter Emily Wilson talked to two of them.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.


emilyheadshotEmily Wilson is a freelance reporter and producer in San Francisco. She teaches media literacy, math, and English to adults earning their GED at City College of San Francisco.

Organizing Domestic Workers In The Rest Of The Country

This year, California passed a Bill of Rights protecting domestic workers. New York and Hawaii have passed similar bills. But what is going on in the other 47 states? Andrea Cristina Mercado is the campaign director for the National Domestic Worker Alliance. She joins host Maria Hinojosa to talk about how the legacy of slavery makes it difficult for domestic workers to organize and how despite obstacles, the domestic worker movement has grown.

Photo courtesy of Dignidad Rebelde. 

C2_NatDomWorkers_Headshot_AndreaCristinaMercado_Credit_National Domestic Worker Association

Photo courtesy of National Domestic Workers Association.

Andrea Cristina Mercado is the daughter of South American immigrants, the mother of two small girls, and the new Campaign Director at the National Domestic Worker Alliance. For the past eight years Andrea has been organizing at Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), a grassroots Latina immigrant women’s organization in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is one of the co-founders of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and has played a leadership role in building and coordinating the California Domestic Worker Coalition, a statewide effort to include domestic workers in labor laws.

Barack Obama (2006)

In 2006, Barack Obama was still a senator from Illinois, at a time when immigration reform was yet again on Congress’ agenda. Host Maria Hinojosa talked with him about his hopes for legislation, as well as deportation policy.

Image courtesy of Real Clear Politics

Asylum from Violence

After the kidnapping and beheading of the police chief in a Mexican border town, no one dared to replace him. But Marisol Valles Garcia, a twenty-year-old mother and student took the post as police chief in one of the most violent regions in the world. Today, she and her family are seeking political asylum in the U.S. Andres Caballero reports.

Image courtesy of Flickr

Andrés Caballero has been an active contributor to Latino USA for more than a year. He holds a M.S. in Journalism from the Columbia University School of Journalism, and a B.S. in Political Science from Notre Dame De Namur University. He covers issues that affect Latinos across the U.S., and he has also contributed to New America Media, the Hispanic Link News Service in Washington D.C., and El Tecolote in San Francisco.

Cross-border Custody

Reporter Jill Replogle tells us the story of one deported couple trying to get their child back from the United States. In collaboration with the Fronteras: Changing America Desk, a public radio collaboration in the southwest focusing on the border, immigration and changing demographics.

Image courtesy of Fronteras: Changing America Desk


 Jill Replogle is based in San Diego and reports on the US-Mexico border, immigration, changing demographics and environment.


Legalizing Love

On June 26th the US Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, paving the way for federal recognition of same-sex marriages and allowing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender immigrant couples to apply for the same immigration benefits as straight couples. Pablo Garcia Gamez and Santiago Ortiz, a married couple from Queens, New York, discuss how the DOMA ruling has already changed their lives. Then, Latino USA host Maria Hinojosa speaks with Rachel Tiven, Executive Director of Immigration Equality, about the impact of the ruling.

Image courtesy of Immigration Equality/Judy G. Rolfe


To listen to more of Pablo and Santiago’s story, click HERE for the extended interview:


Santiago Ortiz and Pablo Garcia  Gamez
Santiago Ortiz and Pablo García Gamez have been together for 23 years. They married in Connecticut in 2011 and live in Elmhurst, Queens, New York. Santiago (left) was born in Manhattan’s Lower East Side to parents who migrated from Puerto Rico. Pablo (right) is a native of Venezuela, Caracas and has been living undocumented for over 20 years. He will now be able to apply for a green card as Santiago’s spouse. Once his immigration status is in order, he plans to begin teaching college Spanish.

Rachel Tiven is the Executive Director of Immigration Equality, a legal advocacy organization representing LGBTQ immigrants. Rachel received her law degree from Columbia Law School and her bachelor’s degree from Harvard.


Decisions, Decisions at the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court ruled its last batch of decisions on several cases that directly impact Latinos and other people of color. Among these, a decision that invalidates one of the most important provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Myrna Perez, Deputy Director at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, talks about some of these cases.

Image courtesy of Flickr/SEIU



pabloMyrna Perez is a senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a legal research and advocacy organization at New York University. She also works on a variety of voting rights related issues, including redistricting, voter registration list maintenance, and access to the ballot box. Before joining the center, Ms. Pérez was the Civil Rights Fellow at Relman & Dane, a civil rights law firm in Washington, D.C.

Congressional House Divided

Just after the last presidential election, prominent Republicans sent a clear message to support an immigration overhaul. But after months of debate, divisions among Republicans in Congress over a path to citizenship in the bill threaten the new pro-Latino rhetoric the party has worked so hard to promote. Matt Laslo reports from Washington.

Image courtesy of Flickr/Joe Goldberg.

head_shot_lasloMatt Laslo is a freelance reporter who has been covering Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court for more than five years. He has filed stories for more than 40 local NPR stations. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Chattanooga Times Free Press, National Public Radio, The Omaha World-Herald, Pacifica Radio, Politics Magazine, and Washington Magazine.

Tackling the GOP’s Latino Problem

The Republican Party continues to struggle to recover the level of Latino support it enjoyed during the George W. Bush era. The $64 million question: can the Republicans do it, and how? María Hinojosa speaks with Pablo Pantoja, former Republican National Committee Hispanic outreach director in Florida, and George Antuna, co-founder of the Hispanic Republicans of Texas.

Photo courtesy of…


pabloPablo Pantoja has worked and volunteered in several roles with the Republican Party at the local, state, and national levels. Recently, he repudiated the culture of intolerance in the Republican Party through a public letter to his friends and took a stand by switching to the Democratic Party. Pantoja is a veteran of the Army National Guard and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Spanish and a Master’s Degree in Political Science, Applied American Politics and Policy from Florida State University.

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 1.21.40 PMGeorge Antuna Jr. is the co-founder of the Hispanic Republicans of Texas. He is a former candidate for the Texas House of Representatives and worked for U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison as Regional Director for San Antonio, South Central Texas and El Paso. Before entering public service, he was the Director of Protocol for then Texas Secretary of State, Henry Cuellar, and Policy Analyst of Workforce Development, Economic Development and International Relations for then Lt. Governor Rick Perry. Mr. Antuna was elected to the council of the City of Schertz in May, 2011. He currently works in the financial services industry.


Repainting Farm Labor… With Blue

For the nearly one-and-a-half million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the U.S, the solution to legalization no longer lies on a green card, but a “blue card.” A new provision in the Senate immigration reform bill could expedite the path to legalization for immigrant farmworkers seeking permanent residency. Sean Powers reports from Illinois.

Photo courtesy of Sean Powers.

SeanPowersRadioStudioSean Powers is a reporter and digital editor at Illinois Public Media. Powers is a native of the south suburbs of Chicago, and he graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Missouri. In 2012, he completed a fellowship at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He’s currently working on a master’s degree in the library science program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Voluntary Departure?”

The ACLU filed a lawsuit last week against the U.S. government alleging that immigration officers are pressuring undocumented immigrants into signing their own deportation orders and waiving their rights to appear before an immigration judge. John Carlos Frey reports.

Photo: Family victim of coerced deportation. Courtesy of Rebecca Rauber.

john-carlos-frey-cropped_150-122x150John Carlos Frey is a freelance investigative reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. His investigative work has been featured on the 60 Minutes episode, “The All American Canal;” a three-part series for PBS entitled “Crossing the Line;” and several episodes of Dan Rather Reports, “Angel of the Desert,” and “Operation Streamline.” In 2011 Frey documented the journey of Mexican migrants across the US-Mexico border and walked for days in the Arizona desert risking his own life for the documentary Life and Death on the Border”. John Carlos Frey has also written articles for the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, Salon, Need to Know online, the Washington Monthly, and El Diario (in Spanish). Frey’s documentary films include The Invisible Mexicans of Deer Canyon (2007), The Invisible Chapel (2008), and The 800 Mile Wall (2009). He is the 2012 recipient of the Scripps Howard Award and the Sigma Delta Chi award for his Investigative Fund/PBS reporting on the excessive use of force by the US Border Patrol.

Diversity on Trial

Race-conscious admissions policies have opened the college doors for many Latino students. Now, Fisher v University of Texas at Austin, a case soon to be decided by the Supreme Court, may change how schools are allowed to factor in race. Latino USA host María Hinojosa speaks with Angelo Ancheta, a law professor at Santa Clara University and the Counsel of Record for a Friend of the Court brief filed in the Fisher case.

Image courtesy of


Angelo N. Ancheta is the director of the Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center at Santa Clara University School of Law. He is the former Director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, and the former Executive Director at the Asian Law Caucus. Mr. Ancheta served as the Counsel of Record for the Friend of the Court Brief filed by the American Educational Research Association in the Fisher v University of Texas at Austin case.

Bracero Pay Day on Hold

While Congress debates provisions for a new guest worker program, elderly Mexican farmworkers called braceros protest about retirement money they say they’re owed. Mónica Ortiz Uribe reports.

Photo courtesy of Mónica Ortiz Uribe.

MonicaOrtizUribe1_t210Mónica Ortiz Uribe is a native of El Paso, Texas, where she recently worked as a freelance reporter. Her work has aired on NPR, Public Radio International and Radio Bilingue. Most of her stories examined the effects of drug-related violence across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Previously, she worked as a reporter for the Waco Tribune Herald in Waco, Texas. She graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso with a degree in history.


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