Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014 | 2 a.m.
When Astrid Silva addressed a panel of U.S. senators last week to tout President Barack Obama’s new immigration plan, she mentioned a Las Vegas con woman who posed as an attorney to bilk thousands from her undocumented father.
“Unfortunately, like a lot of people, we were taken advantage of. She dragged us along,” Silva said. Her father, Cesar Silva, went to an immigration services agency in his quest to become a legal citizen, but instead he was jailed when the agency bungled his case. “My family spent one week without my dad, but it was the longest week of our life.”
The week ended with relief for the family, as Cesar Silva was given a stay thanks to community support, including a protest and a petition delivered to the local ICE office. And now, Astrid Silva told Senate lawmakers, Obama’s executive action will shield millions of people like him from being separated from their families.
But it won’t save them from predators targeting vulnerable newcomers — in fact, advocates fear confusion over the new policy may drive immigrants straight to people posing as lawyers.
“Immigration attorneys are not cheap, and there are not that many in our town,” Las Vegas lawyer Kathia Pereira said. “If people can’t afford a real lawyer, they’re going to turn to these unscrupulous sources. It comes from desperation, from need.”
Here are three reasons immigration experts are worried:
The byzantine U.S. immigration system is difficult to navigate, and Obama’s wide-reaching new plan complicates it even more.
White House officials estimate that as many as 5 million people living in the country illegally may qualify, though that number is hard to pin down because it’s unclear how many are living in the shadows. The policy could affect thousands in Nevada — the state has the biggest population share of undocumented immigrants in the country, according to Pew Research Center statistics.
Parents of children who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents stand to benefit most, as the deal will grant them temporary protection from deportation and the chance to apply for Social Security benefits if they work in the country long enough.
But first, they’ll have to figure out the new rules without falling victim to rumors, misinformation and speculation.
Applications for Obama’s relief program won’t be available until at least next spring. But driven by impatience and elation over the new plan, some people living in the country illegally are already scrambling to find legal counsel.
“We get calls from people asking if immigration reform has passed, and of course that hasn’t happened,” said Michael Kagan, co-director of UNLV’s Immigration Clinic. “We have to deliver them the bad news.”
Immigrants’ confusion often stems from misconceptions about the role of notary publics in the United States.
In much of Latin America, the term “notario público” is a synonym for a licensed attorney. While the phrase shares a common linguistic derivation with the term “notary public,” they convey vastly different titles — notary publics don’t have law degrees, and their primary duties typically include authenticating basic documents.
Intimidated by legitimate attorneys or upset by disappointing results with them, immigrants flock to notary publics in the U.S. Unlawful ones offer lower fees and false promises of being able to help with the naturalization process. An increase in complaints about notary publics prompted Nevada’s attorney general to warn the public about scammers after Obama's 2012 deferred action policy was announced.
“We see people who think they can’t afford a lawyer, so they go to some of these storefronts,” said Barbara Buckley, executive director for the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada. “They get charged thousands of dollars and they get very bad information. We see it all the time with bankruptcy cases.”
Scammers don’t just take victims’ money. They also expose them.
Once an undocumented immigrant fills out paperwork to become a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, federal officials have all they need to deport.
Predators often prolong their scams in order to bilk victims for as much as possible.
“People are going to be willing to give their money away just with the hope that they’ll be the first to fill out these applications,” Pereira said. “There are people who are going to take advantage of them. We have to do whatever is possible to prevent that.”
RESOURCES FOR IMMIGRANTS:
A coalition of legal experts and Latino advocates will hold a forum at the Mexican consulate office downtown to help the public navigate upcoming changes in immigration law. Thursday, Dec. 18 | 5 p.m. | Consulate of Mexico, 823 S. 6th Street, Las Vegas NV 89101
The Federal Trade Commission has a Spanish-language guide warning immigrants about the perils of scammers pretending to be attorneys and legal experts.