Mexican immigrants chasing the American dream are vulnerable to a range of abuses, whether at the hands of shady “coyotes” who transport them across the border or while under the thumb of predatory lenders after they settle in the U.S.
One common form of exploitation goes by the name “notario publico.” Notarios are pseudo-professionals who offer cut-rate immigration consultation services normally handled by lawyers, despite most notarios having no legal training.
In Pierce County, several cases of unqualified, unscrupulous notarios have cropped up in recent years. For a price, they promise to guide immigrants toward legal employment status and residency. Too often, these amateurs make things worse for their clients.
Many immigrants, pushed to the limits of desperation and fear of deportation, have placed unwarranted trust in these businesses, perhaps taken in by the name on a storefront or a calling card. (In Latin America, a notario is typically a licensed attorney, while in the U.S., the word is synonymous with a notary public.)
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A federal judge recently struck a big blow against crooked notario practices, ordering a Tacoma-area man to pony up more than $50,000 in damages and attorney fees. Ismael Delgado had been paid nearly $1,500 for services rendered to a family, but his bad advice led to rejection of their immigration application. That’s according to a lawsuit believed to be one of the first of its kind to reach a successful resolution.
The court ruling has implications well beyond one victorious family and even beyond the immigrant community. The 27 percent of Pierce County’s foreign-born population who hail from Latin America contribute mightily to our agricultural and service economy, shop local, pay taxes and contribute to the safety net. Looking out for their well-being is in everyone’s best interest.
The ruling was issued at a most critical time. President Donald Trump’s sweeping deportation orders, fueled by his hard line against immigration from Mexico and several other countries, will only drive more people underground for help — and straight into the arms of notarios.
In 2011, state lawmakers adopted the Immigration Services Fraud Prevention Act to crack down on nonlawyers posing as legitimate immigrant advocates. Victims can report bad-apple notarios by phoning the state attorney general’s office at 1-800-551-4636. There also are many resources available for those seeking competent, affordable legal aid.
But if immigrants don’t trust government in this uncertain age of Trump, why would they come out of the shadows?
With rulings like the one against Delgado, they may more clearly receive an important signal: that Washington state’s justice system won’t tolerate the exploitation of immigrants, regardless of their legal status.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson set the tone in 2015, when he initiated enforcement actions totaling more than $200,000 against unlicensed notarios in Lakewood, Tacoma and Everett. Ferguson said the Lakewood business had provided unauthorized legal services to more than 400 people.
“Immigration law is one of the most complicated areas in the legal field,” the AG office says on its website. “Thousands of Washington consumers require immigration-related legal services each year, but unfortunately many individuals, often times relying on referrals from family and friends, are unknowingly defrauded by people claiming to be experts.”
Faced with a legal system as daunting as any proposed border wall, immigrants need access to real experts — now more than ever. Notarios in Washington state have earned their notoriety, and must be held to full account.