Teresa* was a teenager when her father applied for petitions to bring his children from Mexico to the U.S. Her father filed the papers with assistance from Juan*, a man who had helped prepare his taxes, said he was a notary public and provided immigration services. A few years later, Teresa entered the U.S. illegally. Then last year, Juan advised Teresa and her siblings to waste no time in filing applications for green cards. Teresa, now in her 30’s, paid Juan more than $350 to help her fill out new paperwork.
But she lost that money, as well as the government’s filing fee of more than $2,000. At an immigration office in Eastern Washington, Teresa learned that the papers had not been filed correctly. Worse, she was soon notified that her application was denied and that she would be deported.
Sadly, Teresa’s story is not uncommon. In most Latin American countries, a “notario” is a licensed attorney. But the similar-sounding English word “notary public,” which translates to “notario publico,” means something entirely different. In the United States, a notary public can administer oaths and witness signatures – but that's all, no legal advice.
Unfortunately, this simple lost-in-translation mistake has caused many Latino immigrants thousands of dollars, their jobs and the chance to live legally in the U.S.
Fortunately, qualified help is available:
- Free information for immigrants and refugees can be found at www.washingtonlawhelp.org.
- To find a registered immigration assistant, contact the Washington Secretary of State, but remember, registration does not guarantee the proper knowledge or experience so ask for references!
- To find a licensed immigration attorney, contact your local county bar association, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, or theLatina/o Bar Association of Washington.
- If you are low-income and have a non-criminal legal problem outside King County, call the Northwest Justice Project’s CLEAR hotline at 1-888-201-1014 from 9:15 a.m. until 12:15 p.m weekdays. In King County, call 211 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. weekdays.
- The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project provides legal services to immigrants and refugees and offers workshops for those who want to know if they are qualified to petition for their family members to get legal status in the U.S.
The Washington Attorney General’s Office recently issued civil investigative demands, similar to subpoenas, to 11 individuals believed to be illegally providing immigration services in our state. If you believe you or someone you know has been scammed, please file a complaint with the Washington Attorney General’s Office online in English or Spanish or call 1-800-551-4636 between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays.
*Names have been changed for this story.