Ask Avvo: Can a ‘notario público’ help with my immigration case?

Immigration, Rights
Photo: Example of notario advertising, American Bar Association

Q: I keep seeing advertisements for fast immigration and green card assistance from “notario públicos.” What is a notario público and can one help me with my immigration case?

A: In 2011, A and her husband B hired a notario público to help with their immigration case. Even though A had been deported before, the notario said this would be “no problem.” The notario filled out some immigration forms for A, took her money and gave no receipt. The application was denied because of the prior deportation, and A was sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She then spent years fighting to stay in the United States.

Unfortunately, stories like this are familiar to immigration attorneys. We frequently meet clients who have been badly harmed by fraudulent legal service providers, usually called notarios. Sometimes the damage cannot be fixed. Before you allow someone to help you with your immigration case, please make sure they are authorized to provide legal advice.

For additional advice about choosing an immigration attorney, read my previous post.

Who is allowed to practice immigration law?

In the United States there are only two types of professionals legally allowed to give immigration law advice:

  1. Licensed attorneys. To find out if an individual is an attorney, check if he or she is licensed through the appropriate state bar organization. Note that because immigration law is national, some attorneys are licensed in different states from the one where they live and practice.
  1. “Accredited representatives.” To fall in this category, the individual must work for one of the recognized organizations listed here. Services must be provided for free or low cost. If the person is associated with a business, he is probably not an accredited representative.

Notarios cannot practice immigration law in the United States

In 2011, the Texas Attorney General took action against Mary's Bookkeeping and five other fraudulent notarios. Photo credit: Texas Attorney General's Office
In 2011, the Texas Attorney General took action against Mary’s Bookkeeping and five other fraudulent notarios. Photo credit: Texas Attorney General’s Office

In some other countries, a person called a notario is permitted to help with certain types of legal issues. That is not true in the United States. If an individual is not a licensed attorney or accredited representative, he cannot help you with your immigration case.

Warning signs of fraud

If you hear any of the following statements, red flags should go up!

Example of immigration scam. Photo credit: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
Example of immigration scam. Photo credit: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
  • “I can get your papers fast!” Most family-related immigration benefits cannot be expedited. You should be very skeptical of any claim that a person can make your process go faster than normal.
  • “I have special connections with the immigration agency.” An immigration lawyer may have a good working relationship with the local immigration office, but no lawyer should claim that he has special influence with immigration officers.
  • “It’s okay if we fudge the truth.” Lying on an immigration application – even a single question – can cause you to be barred from the U.S. for the rest of your life. Never (never, never, never) lie on an application or to an immigration officer.
  • “We don’t need a contract.” Before paying anyone to help you with your immigration case, make sure to get a written fee agreement. It should be clear what service you are paying for and the total cost involved.

Have you been a victim of notario fraud?

  1. Report the notario to your state’s consumer protection agency. Contact information for all 50 states can be found here.
  1. You may be able to get free legal assistance. The American Immigration Lawyers Association and the American Bar Association have partnered to help victims of notario fraud get pro bono legal representation. They cannot guarantee the availability of an attorney, but this is a good place to start.