LM Otero / AP
Monday, April 9, 2018 | 2 a.m.
They pose as the cost-effective and more intimate alternative to pricey attorneys for undocumented immigrants looking to establish U.S. residency. Usually Spanish-speaking, they’re familiar with the immigration process — and how to take advantage of those seeking help.
“Notarios publico,” which directly translates to notaries public, are often anything but a safe option for the estimated 210,000 undocumented immigrants living in Nevada, officials and attorneys said. Frequently posing as attorneys themselves, notarios can help to secure a temporary work permit for immigrants but often endanger immigrants’ long-term status in the United States.
“Notarios often build up trust in their targeted communities,” said Michael Kagan, director of UNLV’s Immigration Clinic. “They make the immigration process seem more open and logical than it actually is.”
Las Vegan Cecilia Gomez is one victim to fall prey to the harsh realities of working with a notario, according to family and friends. Gomez believes she was scammed in the late 1990s by a woman promising to help her attain legal U.S. residency after she paid nearly $1,000 for what she thought was her chance at permanent U.S. residency with a green card.
Gomez never heard back from the notario, her family said, but her application was submitted, according to U.S. authorities.
Gomez was sent a notice to appear in court and, after she did not show for the court date, was then sent a notice of deportation, said Lori Haley, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But Gomez’s family said she didn’t find out about the correspondence until nearly 20 years later, when she was arrested on March 27 after she walked into the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services office in Las Vegas to apply for permanent residency. Gomez’s family says she never lived at the address on the application, which they said is currently a doughnut shop in Los Angeles.
The scenario encountered by Gomez is one Las Vegas immigration attorney David Walters said was a common fraud practiced by unethical notarios on their undocumented clients.
The scheme works like this, Walters said: Notarios who promise work authorizations for their clients file an asylum application for them and then apply for a work authorization.
The notario lists their own address as the undocumented immigrants’ address, so notice of the interview for the authorization comes to the notario, Walters said. The immigrant is usually unaware an asylum application was filed on their behalf and the notario does not inform the immigrant of the interview.
When the immigrant fails to appear at the interview, the asylum application is denied and referred to an immigration judge, Walters said. That notice is also sent to the notario’s address. When the immigrant also fails to appear at the hearing, they’re ordered deported in absentia.
The result of poor communication, not knowing how to fill and file immigration documents, or straight-up scamming are among the many ways unlicensed notarios endanger immigrants, Haley said. By applying for residency, even if the process is failed and an immigrant doesn’t meet U.S. qualifications, their names are officially on record with federal authorities.
That creates a even-bigger problem for the those here illegally, with that record making it easier for U.S. immigration officials to track undocumented immigrants, and later to prosecute or deport them, Haley said.
In Latin American countries, a “notario publico” is a college-educated legal professional, qualified to practice law at the same level as licensed attorney in the United States. It’s a big difference from a notary public, which almost anyone can become in the United States.
For many undocumented immigrants living here, that difference and cultural confusion makes them especially vulnerable targets, said Irene Jimenez-Muir, compliance investigator with the Nevada secretary of state’s office.
“It’s clearly unlawful,” Jimenez-Muir said. “But you still see a lot of it going on.”
Jimenez-Muir is Nevada’s only state investigator of notarios. She said while legislation in both Nevada and other states has passed to curb notario fraud, the growing number of immigrants to the U.S. has kept the practice alive and well.
The scam is so well-established in Texas that state law there prohibits companies to advertise a literal translation of “notary public” in Spanish. In Nevada, Assembly Bill 74, passed into law by the 2013 Legislature and first enacted in January 2014, required all notaries to register with the state and undergo background checks. It aimed to cut down on the corruption of such fraud, said then-Assemblyman Wes Duncan, R-Las Vegas.
But Assemblyman Edgar Flores, D-Las Vegas, said in last year’s legislative session that plenty of notario “garbage” was still operating in Southern Nevada communities. Flores' 2017 bill to increase notario fraud from a misdemeanor to a Class-D felony was passed into law last legislative session.
Only licensed attorneys and people accredited by the U.S. Board of Immigration appeals can legally offer immigration assistance, Flores said.
On March 6, Nevada attorney general’s office issued a statement warning the public about notartio scams, which continue to “take advantage of unsuspecting victims.” Jimenez-Muir said her office currently was investigating over 100 cases alleging such fraud.
UNLV’s Kagan said lack of affordable resources for immigrants trying to play by the rules makes them feel they have no other option than to employ a notarios. Such a system makes the valley “ripe” for notarios, he said. He recommended, when possible, working with a licensed attorney.
“It can be hard and stressful and mean spending a little bit of money,” Kagan said. “But it may save your family from being broken apart.”
Resources for undocumented immigrants in Southern Nevada
Legal Aid of Southern Nevada, 725 E. Charleston Blvd., offers classes to help undocumented residents understand the paths to legal immigration. They help explains family petitions, VAWA petitions, U-Visas, T-Visas, asylum, and DACA.
Classes in English are at 9:30 a.m. April 20, May 4, May 18 and June 1. In Spanish, classes are at 9:30 a.m. April 13, April, 27, May 11 and May 25.
The UNLV Law Immigration Clinic provides free legal services. It can be reached at (702) 895-2080.
The Citizenship Project by the Culinary Union has helped more than 16,000 Nevadans become citizens by providing free services to union members and their families. It is located inside Nevada Partners at 710 W. Lake Mead Blvd. and open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.
From 4:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. on Monday-Thursday it offers citizenship exam preparation courses.
Contact the union at (702) 868-6002.