An immigration scam exploiting the use of the Spanish word notario has bilked thousands of Latino immigrants seeking to legalize their United States residency status and prompted Los Angeles officials to launch a crackdown.
In some Latin American countries, a notario is a lawyer. In others, the title denotes someone who holds public office. In the United States, however, a notary is simply someone legally empowered to witness and certify documents and take affidavits and depositions.
Unscrupulous operators are using confusion over the meaning of the word to dupe unsuspecting immigrants into thinking they are attorneys who can help people get U.S. work permits and legalize their residency status, officials said.
They charge their clients exorbitant fees, file frivolous paperwork and keep them waiting -- and paying -- often for years, according to authorities.
In many cases, immigrants unknowingly sign applications for asylum, which lawyers say can greatly improve the possibility of being awarded a work permit while the petitioner's case is pending adjudication. But when the client is called up for an asylum interview, their case is usually revealed as being invalid. Successful political asylum applications for Mexican nationals are rare, lawyers said. Still, the fraud thrives.
Such scams have been going on for decades, but local officials said they've noticed a uptick in complaints in recent months. The rip-off can spell disaster for immigrants desperate for a shot at permanent residency in the United States.
"You have people not only losing their money, but facing deportation or being in limbo after many years of struggle," said Jenaro Batiz-Romero, a spokesman for the Los Angeles city attorney's office, which last year launched an Immigration Fraud Strike Force dedicated to putting deceitful immigration consultants and others out of business. "It's a problem that is much more common than is reported."
It is impossible to calculate the extent of immigration fraud in Los Angeles County because few victims are willing to report the crime for fear of being taken into custody by immigration authorities. Some consultants operate out of lawyers' offices or are underground businesses. Others do not openly advertise, instead working via referrals.
But city officials say extensive anecdotal evidence, coupled with the huge volume of largely anonymous complaints received by the Spanish language media and L.A. County's Department of Consumer Affairs, indicates that the number of victims could run into the thousands. And the crooked scheme appears to be flourishing.
Since May 2003, the Immigration Fraud Strike Force has obtained 14 convictions against immigration consultants working in the MacArthur Park area for misrepresenting themselves as lawyers and mischaracterizing how they can assist people in obtaining citizenship. A separate undercover sting in Koreatown in early July led to seven criminal cases filed against bogus immigration service providers. A third strike is on the horizon, city officials said.
Manuel Rodriguez Ibarra knows firsthand what it is like to be conned. Desperation propelled the Mexican father of four, in the U.S. since 1988, to seek help from someone who claimed to be an immigration specialist.
"The guy said in two years he could get me a work permit, but years passed, and I got nothing," said Rodriguez Ibarra, 44, his 12-year-old American-born daughter Angie acting as interpreter.
Sitting in the family's cramped one-room residence on the city's Eastside, Rodriguez Ibarra flicked through the reams of documents the immigration consultant claimed to have filed on his behalf but never did -- as the father later learned from immigration authorities.
He pointed to receipts for money he paid to the now-defunct Long Beach firm called One Way To Immigration. First a deposit of $1,500; then a money order for $90; then monthly payments in $100 and $250 increments for at least five years.
The debt depleted Rodriguez Ibarra's meager earnings. The lack of a Social Security number and a physical disability -- his right foot is almost completely turned backward -- have prevented him from finding consistent work. The $500 a month Rodriguez Ibarra says he gets in welfare assistance is barely enough to cover his $360 monthly rent, much less feed and clothe his children, which he must handle alone.
Rodriguez Ibarra is a single father. He divorced his wife in 1999, and a judge awarded him custody of the couple's four children -- the youngest two were born in the U.S. He proudly presents the judge's court order to visitors.
"I am a good person," the distraught father said in a letter he recently sent to media outlets. He has also written to President Bush. "I have not had any kind of problems with the police or anyone else."