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.
Melissa, an American citizen who married an immigrant, reached out to several attorneys last year hoping to start the process of getting her husband a green card. When a man later contacted her claiming a colleague had recommended her case to him, she didn't think anything of it. She gave the man the $10,000 he requested. She believed him when he told her, over and over again, that her husband's case would soon be resolved.
"You spend nearly a year and a half talking to someone, crying on their shoulder, and you come to rely on them," she said. "I thought I had made a friend."
But then she got news her husband would be deported. Soon she realized her two children, just 1 and 3 years old, would be growing up without their daddy.
Not all of the people who pose as immigration lawyers reach out to their victims, Tarin said. Many just put up a sign and wait for business to walk in the door. Most stories end the same, though.
"A lot of times the best advice you can give an undocumented immigrant who is looking for legal status is, 'Do nothing,'" he said. "When these fake lawyers file paperwork they're basically marking the case with a red flag. It almost always leads to deportation."
Catching the criminal
In recent years, the Utah Attorney General and the Utah State Bar have taken down a few con artists. Most notable was Leticia Avila, who fled the country in 2009 after she was accused of convincing up to 20 undocumented immigrants to pay her between $2,000 and $8,000 each for fraudulent work permits.
Still, most notarios have little to fear, said Jordan Cheng, who chairs the immigration arm of the Utah State Bar's committee on the unauthorized practice of law. The fake lawyers make no effort to hide their activities, advertising their fraudulent legal services on city benches, TRAX weather shelters and billboards.
Sgt. Mike Powell, public information officer for the West Valley City Police Department, knows what the ads mean. But because the victims are immigrants, they often hesitate to file complaints with the police, he said. Without complaints, the department will not investigate, he said.
The Utah State Bar operates similarly, Cheng said. The agency will not prosecute unless there is a written complaint and, even then, there must be a large number of victims.
"The biggest challenge in taking these people down is getting victims or potential victims to come out and say something," Cheng said. "A lot of immigrants fear talking to authorities. The fact is, if you start talking to authorities you could essentially expose yourself to the potential of deportation."
The federal government's campaign involves a blitz of advertising focusing on teaching immigrants how to recognize fake lawyers and consultants. Federal officials are also working with local prosecutors to bring criminal cases against notarios to serve as examples. Within the immigration court system there are plans to expand the number of nonprofit organizations trained and certified to provide basic legal services to immigrants.
Nationally, the initiative has been criticized as a campaign move — the Obama administration's answer to growing criticism from immigrant communities. Deportations have been at record highs for the last two years and immigration is gearing up to be a major issue in the 2012 elections.
Tarin and Cheng remain skeptical about the federal government's promises.
Tarn, the son of an undocumented immigrant who once fell prey to a notario, used to sue the fake lawyers in his spare time. They'd get scared and pick up and move. After a while, though, he realized they were just opening up shop in other parts of town.
"I started to feel like gardener who can't keep up with the weeds," he said. "I've almost given up."