By Rob McKenna and Eléna Perez
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. He or she isn’t an attorney and can’t give 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.
A few years ago, an immigration consultant in Wenatchee was found liable for fraud, legal malpractice and other violations in connection with persuading more than 2,000 undocumented immigrants to sign up for voluntary deportation. Many hoped to take advantage of a supposed “10-year law” that the consultant allegedly told them was a sure route to a work permit and legal permanent residence. Instead, the consultant’s inappropriate legal advice triggered deportation for about 150 immigrants.
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.
Not all immigration consultants are scammers. Too often, however, they lack the required skills. Immigration is one of the most complicated areas of the law and regulations are constantly changing. Only a licensed attorney who understands the many details of immigration can give you trustworthy advice on how and when to apply for a visa or citizenship.
Undocumented immigrants are frequently reluctant to report that they are victims of fraud or unfair business practices. But complaints are necessary for law enforcement and government regulators to build a case against bad actors and bring justice.
Contact the Attorney General’s Office if your immigration assistant:
- Advertised as a "Notario Publico" or "Notary"
- Is not registered with the Secretary of State as an immigration assistant
- Did not provide a written contract
- Encouraged you to file a certain petition or document
- Claims to receive special treatment from immigration officials
- Kept your original documents
- Charged you for services you did not receive
- Guaranteed results
- Threatened your immigration status for refusing to pay more money
- Free information for immigrants and refugees can be found online at www.washingtonlawhelp.org.
- To find a registered immigration assistant, contact the Washington State Secretary of State at 360-725-0377 or visit their web site at www.secstate.wa.gov, 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, www.aila.org, or the Latina/o Bar Association of Washington, www.lbaw.org.
- 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. Information is available online at www.nwirp.org. Western Washington residents may call 800-445-5771 or 206-587-4009. In Eastern Washington, call 888-756-3641 or 509-854-2100. Calls are answered on weekdays; ask for the Citizenship Unit.
- If you believe you have been a victim of an immigrant scam, file a complaint with the Washington Attorney General’s Office online at www.atg.wa.gov (http://atg.wa.gov/EnEspanol.aspx) or call 1-800-551-4636 between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays.
*Names have been changed for this story.
Rob McKenna is Washington state’s Attorney General. Elena Pérez is a bilingual outreach specialist for the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division.
Media Contacts: Kristin Alexander, Media Relations Manager, (206) 464-6432, firstname.lastname@example.org
Elena H. Pérez, Bilingual Outreach Specialist | Especialista Bilingüe de Alcance Comunitario, (509) 734-7143, email@example.com