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Undocumented immigrants are warned of scammers as new Obama policy takes effect

As the first of what could be a million or more undocumented young immigrants applies for deportation relief this week under a new Obama administration policy, government, law enforcement and legal officials are warning them not to fall victim to unscrupulous immigration “consultants” ready to scam them.

Win Mcnamee / Getty Images file

Sen. Dick Durbin's warning to immigrants to be wary of unscrupulous 'notarios' and lawyers trying to take advantage of them raised a ruckus among immigration attorneys.

So-called “notarios” operating in Spanish-speaking communities, some hiding under the guise of travel agencies, translation services and other businesses, are offering to help undocumented immigrants navigate the process of applying for relief under the Obama program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA.

Notarios can charge hefty fees for services that are unnecessary or that they are not legally authorized to provide, officials say.


“Don’t Get Scammed!” reads a consumer advisory posted by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which has held conference calls with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials about notario fraud.

The association has also established a website, stopnotariofraud.org, aimed at keeping immigrants from being victimized. The website warns in bold letters: “Notarios will take your money and your dreams!”

“It’s pervasive,” says Josh Deere, a Colorado immigration attorney with the firm Hanes Hrbacek & Bartels. “We talk to people almost every day who have at one point or another had contact with or hired these people who are unlicensed.”

Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto is among a host of public officials who have warned about the proliferation of immigration services scams as the new deferral policy goes into effect Wednesday.

“Notarios cannot make eligibility decisions for those seeking advice on their immigration status,” Masto said in a press release last month. “Receiving the wrong advice can hurt you. Be wary of the often unscrupulous notaries and those, especially non-licensed attorneys offering help with immigration services.”

Chasing a 'dream': Immigrant youth seek legal status

What's in a word
The Spanish word “notario” has different meanings in different parts of the world. In some Latin American countries, “notario” refers to a lawyer with special credentials. In Hispanic communities in the U.S., unlicensed, underground notarios have been peddling legal services or offering to help fill out the application forms for young undocumented immigrants seeking a reprieve and work permits under the new Obama policy.

President Obama announces that the Department of Homeland Security will no longer seek the deportation of many young illegal immigrants.

People who need help with immigration issues should be careful before paying money to anyone who is neither an attorney nor an accredited representative of a recognized organization,” Masto said. “Scammers exploit the word ‘notario.’”

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo plans to set aside $600,000 for a legal team of immigration lawyers who will help undocumented immigrants who apply under the new policy. It’s part of a state plan aimed at shielding illegal immigrants from fraud.

“I think there is going to be a great deal of fraud, and these young people are going to need a great deal of help responding with the kinds of documents the federal government is going to require from them,” New York Secretary of the State Cesar A. Perales, was quoted as saying in The New York Times.

“It became clear to us that this was going to be a golden opportunity for scammers.”

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“Immigration consultants run rampant throughout the immigrant community. New immigrants get confused and believe that an American Notary has the same power and place in our society as that of a Notario in their country,” New Jersey-based immigration lawyer Moses Apsan recently wrote. “The immigrant believing that a Notario is the same as a licensed lawyer, hires the Notario and in many cases, find themselves in legal  ‘hot water.’”

In a  follow-up telephone interview, Apsan added: "I’m really worried that they’re all going to take advantage of these kids and get them to lie or submit phony documents."

The DACA program, announced by Obama in June, provides temporary deportation relief and work permits to young undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria. Unlike the better-known DREAM Act, legislation that has never passed Congress, DACA does not offer a path to citizenship.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates that as many as 1.76 million people could be eligible for an extra two years in the U.S. under the new DACA policy. Each applicant must pay a $465 filing fee to the government.

Misspeak?
The potential for fraud in the immigrant communities has even caused a rift between politicians and lawyers.

Earlier this month, Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, both Illinois Democrats who have been longtime advocates of immigration reform, put out a video – with Spanish and English versions – outlining who would qualify for deferred status. In the video, they told constituents to be wary of notario fraud.

“Do not hire a lawyer or pay a notario,” Durbin stated in the video. “… Virtually everyone will be able to go through the process without a lawyer.”

NBC Latino: Tips on filing a successful deferred action application

Lawyers quickly blasted the lawmakers’ message as misguided and doing a disservice to the class of people they are ostensibly trying to help.

Karin Wolman, a New York immigration attorney, said the video perpetuated “a dangerous source of confusion” between unscrupulous notaries and trained, licensed attorneys.

“This is a one-shot opportunity. Applicants must get it right on the first try, or else they face a discretionary denial that is final and cannot be reviewed,” she wrote in a blog post

Durbin and Gutierrez pulled the video after receiving a torrent of complaints from immigration attorneys and others.

“I think it became clear that he overstepped the bounds of common sense,” Wolman said of Durbin.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website (www.uscis.gov/avoidscams) includes tips on filing forms, reporting scams and finding accredited legal services.

The agency will begin accepting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals applications on Wednesday.

The requirements for applicants:

1. Were under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012.

2. Came to the United States before reaching your 16th birthday.

3. Have continuously resided in the United States since June 15, 2007, up to the present time.

4. Were physically present in the United States on June 15, 2012, and at the time of making your request for consideration of deferred action with USCIS.

5. Entered without inspection before June 15, 2012, or your lawful immigration status expired as of June 15, 2012.

6. Are currently in school, have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, have obtained a general education development (GED) certificate, or are an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States.

7. And have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, three or more other misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.

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