By Christian Welch, Medill, Immigrant Connect
When Minaldy Cadet accepted an offer from his dream school, Boston College, he never imagined that a con artist from 15 years ago would almost bring his plans to a screeching halt. But when a fraudulent lawyer filed false papers for his family’s lawful permanent resident status, Cadet found himself undocumented and therefore unable to accept financial aid. With application deadlines passed, he had no choice but to start his first year at Boston College with the weight of his parents’ financial struggle on his shoulders.
Unfortunately, cases like Cadet’s happen all too often. Peter Ashman, an immigration lawyer and former chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Las Vegas chapter, told the Las Vegas Sun that he gets two to three cases per month of clients who have previously been misled by someone. Fraudulent lawyers, who often call themselves “notarios,” target immigrants and offer legal advice without a license while charging a hefty fee. With the confusing changes announced in immigration policy under President Trump, it is an opportune time for notarios to target immigrants who have questions about their status.
These fake lawyers call themselves notarios because in many Hispanic countries, a notario publico is a trained legal professional with all the qualifications of an attorney. Some notarios will obtain a notary public license, which allows them to attest to witnessing signatures on legal documents, and convince immigrants that they are qualified to practice immigration law, according to the American Bar Association (ABA). This makes immigrants who speak little to no English especially vulnerable to being conned—since notary public is the literal translation of notario publico. Hispanic immigrants with limited English will also seek out someone who can assist them in their native language. But even fluent English speakers who are unaware that notarios in the US are unqualified can easily fall prey. Some victims have friends or neighbors who recommended the notario when they are seeking legal help.
Notarios may offer advice, claim to have special connections or know about obscure laws or procedures to help push a case through quickly. They will often charge for consultation, charge for forms that should be free or they require a fee to expedite an application. Some notarios with knowledge of complex immigration laws may put clients under the impression that they are working on the client’s behalf. Such was the case of Cesar Silva reported in the Las Vegas Sun.
A notario filed paperwork for Silva under an asylum provision for Nicaraguans using Silva’s Mexican birth certificate. Once the paperwork was filed, Silva was issued a temporary work permit and thought his case was on its way. Silva received a deportation notice but his notario assured him it was just part of the process. Silva continued to settle in America, but was arrested by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) a decade later.
Immigrants can spend thousands of dollars on a notario, according to the ABA. It costs $725 to apply for citizenship and a total of about $1,200 to apply for a green card, immigration attorney Amina Khan said. Paying thousands to an unqualified lawyer can add to an already significant financial burden for an immigrant.
“It’s really a community that is largely preyed upon. These are people who are primarily medium- and low-income, not well educated, and they come from a trusting culture. There is also a lack of access to Spanish-speaking attorneys,” Assemblywoman Lucy Flores told the Las Vegas Sun.
Hiring an immigration lawyer can be an expensive process when done through a proper immigration lawyer as well. The American Immigration Lawyers Association provides information online about nonprofits and pro bono services that can help an immigrant who can’t afford legal counsel.
While the financial burden alone can be foreboding, time wasted with a notario can also lead to a bar from entering the country. If someone enters the country on a legal visa, they can apply for a change of status if their visa is still valid, Khan said. But if someone who entered on a visa has been in the US with an expired visa for more than six months, but less than a year, they will be barred from the country for three years, Kahn said. If their visa is expired for more than year, they will be barred for 10 years, she added. Applying through a notario, or even just an ill-informed lawyer, can place an immigrant in removal proceedings if they have overstayed their visas, she said.
Flores also told a cautionary tale to the Las Vegas Sun about an immigrant who ended up in deportation proceedings because of a notario, noting that what can make it all the more is having someone wanting to do it the right way get trapped in an unforgiving system.
For Cadet and his family, once they found out their “lawyer” had not filed paperwork for them to obtain green cards, they had overstayed their visas and were no longer eligible. Cadet fought back the best way he could, by telling his story to as many people as possible.
“Someone who’s been in the American school system for their whole lives should not be in this situation,” Cadet said.
After Cadet’s story ran in The Miami Herald last September, it attracted the attention of Boston College and his local lawmakers. Both are now providing legal assistance to try to get Cadet a green card and ensure that he can continue to receive financial aid. Currently, Cadet has a work visa and, with the help of his lawyers, is receiving financial aid to continue his education at Boston College.