Immigration lawyers around Colorado are warning their clients of a special kind of fraud. Every time there’s a change in immigration law, or a potential change, notarios pop up. Notarios offer cheap services to those in the immigrant community, and make promises to get things like work permits and visas. In the end though, many immigrants end up scammed out of their money, sometimes deported or sent to jail. That’s what happened to Virginia Mancinas. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.
Virginia Mancinas has lived in Glenwood Springs for years and owns her own cleaning business. Life wasn’t always this easy. Fifteen years ago, she and her family did business with a notario named Dilcia Romero. Mancinas’ father sought her out after hearing from a neighbor.
"Our neighbor told us about this lady and we trust him. When he told us about this lady, he showed us his work permit, and my dad said, that’s a good idea," she says.
She says Romero claimed to be an attorney. A notario is an immigration consultant who engages in the unauthorized practice of law. In Mancinas’ case, Romero took fingerprints and birth certificates and promised to obtain work permits for Mancinas and her brother. The family met with her three times and then she disappeared. Mancinas says she never received a work permit and, worse, she ended up in jail.
"That kind of experience was terrible for me, to be in jail, it’s not easy."
She was released and sent home after two weeks. Another family she met in jail was not so lucky. After their dealings with Romero, they were were deported.
Glenwood Springs immigration attorney Jennifer Smith says a situation like Mancinas’ isn’t uncommon. She says she often sees signs of notarios.
"When I first was in the Valley, they were very prevalent. There were a lot of people who wanted to help people fill out forms, some of them for bad reasons and some for good reasons. Needless to say, they were both doing the same problem, which is the unauthorized practice of law," Smith says.
Not all notarios are out to con people out of money, she says. Some are just trying to help their neighbors. But, she recommends avoiding anyone who’s not trained when it comes to handling complex immigration forms.
This kind of fraud is a problem across the country, particularly anywhere there’s a large immigrant community.The scams also spike when there’s talk or action in Washington on federal immigration reform. When the Deferred Action policy started last year for children brought into the US illegally, notarios claimed they could help with paperwork.
Recently, Smith says notarios have falsely claimed Congress passed immigration reform.
"One thing that we’ve seen in the past when there’s been previous discussions about changes in the law is that, people who aren’t licensed attorneys will suddenly start saying, there’s a new law in place, we’ll help you get status under the new law."
James Coyle heads the Colorado Supreme Court’s Attorney Regulation Counsel. His office monitors notario fraud, and shuts down illegitimate operations. He says some notarios are con artists.
"They try to create an air that they are the best and that they can get better results than any lawyer. They can get up to a half year’s of wages from an immigrant. And, then after they’re paid they’re the first ones to try and get the immigrant removed so the immigrant doesn’t have any legal standing to go after them," Coyle says.
He says lawyers and businesses accredited by the federal Board of Immigration Appeals are the only entities to trust with immigration paperwork. A list of accredited agencies can be found on the US Citizen and Immigration Services website.
A notario business can be punished if it refuses to get accredited. Fines and even prison time can result.
Linda Diaz owns Soluciones in Olathe, Colorado on the West Slope.
"Primarily what we do is translation of documents and we also do document preparation."
She says the Supreme Court investigated her business after an immigration attorney had suspicions. She says Soluciones doesn’t pretend to be a law firm. They tell their clients they can’t give legal advice. But, she says she knows there’s fraud and, not just from notarios.
"I only know that there’s fraudulent businesses out there because of my customers who come to us, they’ve already been burned once or twice, but they’re not only burned by a notario, they are often burned by an attorney," she says.
She says an attorney may not follow through, or want more money. James Coyle’s office also monitors licensed attorneys. He says the consequences are great for lawyers who do harm to clients. He doesn’t believe this is the problem. He says notario fraud is the problem. The number of notario fraud cases in the state has decreased since the Colorado Supreme Court began tracking them 1999.
Photo One: Virginia Mancinas was the victim of notario fraud 15 years ago. She spent two weeks in jail. (Credit: Marci Krivonen)
Photo Two: Jennifer Smith is a Glenwood Springs-based immigration attorney who sees signs of notario fraud often. Her office aims to prevent it. (Credit: Marci Krivonen)