Las Vegas Sun

May 15, 2021

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Bill takes aim at notarios — fake lawyers who target immigrants

CARSON CITY — She was not an attorney, but she presented herself as one to immigrants who came to her seeking a way to stay in the U.S. legally.

Her common approach was to file an asylum petition, which would result in the immigrant receiving a work permit. But it also would trigger a process that led to the Department of Homeland Security finding that, almost invariably, there was no legitimate need for the petitioner to receive asylum. After determining the petitions were frivolous, authorities would initiate deportation proceedings.

There were hundreds of victims, who thought they were getting legitimate legal advice. But the woman, who operated notary public businesses in Las Vegas, California and Utah, was never tried or convicted, despite laws barring someone from misrepresenting themselves as an attorney.

“That person was at one point detained, paid bail, fled the country and we haven’t seen her since,” Assemblyman Edgar Flores, D-Las Vegas, said today.

Flores related the story while introducing a bill that would increase penalties in such cases by making it a Class D felony — up from a misdemeanor under current law — for a notary public or a member of a document preparation service to fraudulently provide legal services or advice.

The bill is aimed at notarios, a term for notaries public and other nonlawyers who front as attorneys and prey on Hispanic immigrants by taking advantage of cultural confusion over the Spanish term for notary public — notarios publicos. In many Latin American countries, notario is a term for the highest-level lawyers.

Although Nevada lawmakers imposed restrictions on notarios in 2013, requiring them to register with the state and undergo background checks, Flores said they remained a problem, especially in immigrant communities in Southern Nevada.

“There’s a lot of garbage out there — a tremendous amount of garbage,” Flores told the Assembly Committee on Judiciary during a hearing on the measure. “And I think it’s our responsibility to clean it up.”

Flores said the bill would incentivize law enforcement authorities to investigate notarios more aggressively, while also making it easier for them to obtain and implement search warrants. In the case of the woman who filed hundreds of frivolous asylum petitions, Flores said, it would have given the court more discretion to identify her as a flight risk and impose a high bail.

The bill drew support from a number of immigration activists and the Latin Chamber of Commerce.

“You can’t fine enough to get a family back together; you can’t fine enough to give a man his dignity back,” said Peter Guzman, the chamber’s president. “This is as bad or worse than breaking and entering ... because you’re stealing families and you’re stealing people’s dignity.

“I think a bill with real teeth in it like this can go a long way to helping a lot of families.”

Committee members were generally receptive to Flores’ proposal, but some questioned a provision that would make it apply only to cases that ended in “irreparable harm.”

Flores, an attorney, said the term applied to such outcomes as deportations, breakups of families and catastrophic lack of income.

“The idea behind it is, is there any amount of money that would make you whole?” he said. “Is there any amount of money that could make a family that has been forced to be separated, because somebody said they were an attorney and said they could help them through the immigration world and that they never showed up to court and someone was deported, can that be ever cured? Can that ever be fixed with money? The answer is no.”