Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
WEST VALLEY CITY — The signs are big, colorful and easy to spot. Some are professionally painted and installed in front of posh-looking offices. Some are poster board, taped in the window of a shoe store or hung from the ceiling above a freezer full of convenience-store treats. The words — written in Spanish, as most things in this part of West Valley are — vary, but the message is the same.
"Public Notary," they tout. "We do immigration paperwork."
If immigration attorney Aaron Tarin parts the blinds in his office at 2700 South and Redwood Road, he can see one. There are at least five more within walking distance. "It makes me sick," Tarin said. Public notaries have no legal right to deal in immigration law. Most of the time, when they try, their clients end up on Tarin's doorstep a few thousand dollars poorer, facing deportation.
The con is not new. Notarios, as they are called in Spanish, have been swindling immigrants — both documented and undocumented — for nearly as long as immigrants have needed legal help navigating the complex world of visas and green cards. But as the topic of immigration reform has heated up over the past year, federal appeals courts have begun clogging up with immigrants who came looking for legal status and, because of incompetent or fraudulent lawyers, ended up in the labyrinths leading to deportation. While the government doesn't have hard statistics to describe the number of people getting scammed, in a recent news release, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced the problem has reached "epidemic" proportions.
In a major new push to protect immigrants from those who would prey on them, the federal government announced plans this month to crack down on people posing as immigration lawyers. The U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission are working with local prosecutors and immigrant advocacy groups to educate the community and ramp up enforcement.
"We are dedicated to protecting vulnerable immigrants from those who seek to exploit them," said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Alejandro Mayorkas. "Through our sustained outreach, enforcement and education efforts, and our close collaboration with our federal, state and local partners, we will provide the communities we serve with the help needed to combat this pernicious problem."
Business at Utah's underground legal shops has been booming since the state Legislature approved a controversial package of immigration laws in March. Among other things, the laws enabled local police to enforce federal immigration laws and laid out plans for a program that would allow undocumented immigrants to legally work in Utah. Most of the laws have yet to go into effect, but immigrants, frightened by the new enforcement measures, have been flocking to notarios in desperate attempts to secure legal status, said Tony Yapias, director of the immigrant activist group Proyecto Latino de Utah. Some enterprising notarios have begun selling fake "Utah Work Permits" for as much as $2,500 each.
The transactions start out innocent enough. An immigrant needs a legal service. A lawyer — or someone who appears to be a lawyer — offers to help.
Language barriers and the fear of deportation isolate immigrants from mainstream society, making them particularly vulnerable to scams, Tarin said. For hispanics, the culture gap confuses the situation futher because the Spanish translation for "public notary" is "Notario Publico," a term that, in Mexico, is used to describe a high-level attorney.
"The ignorance factor is huge," Tarin said. "A lot of immigrants don't understand that things work differently in the United States,"
The fake lawyers are often "smart and kind and well-spoken," said Melissa, a victim of an immigration scam who asked to be identified only by her first name.
"They tell you what you want to hear, and you trust them," she said.
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