Migrant targets — Notorious 'notarios': scammers claim they can help illegals

Published: Sunday, June 26 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

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."

Email: estuart@desnews.com

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