A few years ago, a realtor friend asked me if I could help her noncitizen client who needed an estate plan. Of course, I said, please give her my card. The next week my friend said that her client had decided to go to a “notary” instead. I thought that was a bit off – notaries witness estate documents, they don’t write them, and I told my friend that – but I didn’t think much of it at the time. If I’d understood the significance of that at the time, I would have phrased my response more strongly.
Since then I became aware that there is a pervasive problem – “scam” is probably the best word for it – around “notarios” and noncitizen communities. The American Bar Association has recently been working to raise awareness of the problem. Here is how it works:
- In the US, “notary public” is a fairly easy commission to get. You fill out a few forms, pay a small fee, get a few people to witness and swear an oath, and you’re a notary. This allows you to witness signatures on certain official and financial documents, and that’s it. A notary has no special training.
- However, in many countries, “notario publico” is a higher level license that requires special training and authorizes the holder to perform many functions that in the US should be performed by an attorney, such as representing clients in the process of obtaining immigration authorizations.
- Fraudulent “notarios publicos” are people working in the US who, while they may or may not actually be registered as notaries, practice law without a license. Most commonly they do this by preparing immigration paperwork for a fee, often hundreds or thousands of dollars. By concentrating on the immigration field, they take advantage of both the cross-border confusion built into the notario title and the immigrant community’s relative lack of representation. Real immigration lawyers train for years and understand not just the forms but the laws behind them, and the diligence and information gathering needed to protect clients. Notarios have none of that.
I am not an immigration lawyer, but I am thinking of this today because of friend who is one, whose client is in danger of deportation. The client had gone to a notario for immigration paperwork, and the notario overlooked a problem that a decent attorney would have spotted, that now has the effect of nullifying her green card. That client has been in this country for more than 15 years, with a life, a job and children, and thought she was safe as a permanent resident on a path to citizenship, and now that’s all in jeopardy because of a notario’s mistake.
If you or somebody you know has been the victim of notario fraud, the ABA has a list of resources. That page includes information on finding a real immigration lawyer who can review your file and give you advice.
Posted for commentary only. Attorney Andrew Lynn does not work in immigration law. This post is not legal advice; if you have a specific question, please speak with a qualified attorney.