Immigration advocates are anticipating a fight against scams and unethical lawyers who might try to defraud unsuspecting immigrants as the hope of immigration reform grows.
President Joe Biden recently announced a 100-day moratorium on deportations as well as plans for an immigration reform bill that would lay out a path for nearly 11 million undocumented people to obtain citizenship within eight years. But the Nevada Immigration Coalition said they are cautious about a rise in immigration-related services fraud.
“There’s a lot of hope with this administration and the actions that they took in the first one hundred days and I think that’s what makes it dangerous that we went from one extreme to another extreme,” said Erica Castro, the chair of NIC. “People are going to want to adjust their status as soon as possible.”
Scammers promising to help immigrants gain citizenship always gain traction when new opportunities for citizenship are introduced by Congress, warned the coalition.
Immigration fraud has been an ongoing issue in the immigrant population, said Maria Nieto the Nevada State Coordinator for Mi Familia Vota, a member of NIC, adding that new executive actions will likely inspire a significant rise of fraud across the country.
One of the most common forms of fraud is “notario” fraud. In Spanish, the term “notario” refers to someone who can provide certain limited legal services, however, in English, the term “notary” refers to someone who can officially witness and authenticate signatures on documents but is not authorized to provide legal services of any kind.
“We’ve already seen a rise ever since DACA applications started being accepted,” last month, said Nieto, who is herself a DACA recipient.
In her work helping those eligible for DACA she has received more calls from the immigrant community about “notarios” who have taken their money without providing the promised legal services.
“One of the biggest problems is when they give legal advice which is completely inaccurate,” said Nieto, adding that legal advice should always be left to immigration lawyers, especially since immigration law is notoriously complicated.
While immigration schemes and notary fraud can cost victims their savings, poorly handled cases can also destroy all chances of getting immigration benefits, and can even lead to deportation.
“They fall into these traps that hurt them in the long run because notarios are not immigration lawyers,” said Castro.
Notarios promise green cards and legal services at a fraction of the price but the risk isn’t worth it, said Nieto, adding that Nevada has trusted organizations that dedicate resources to helping immigrants on their path to citizenship.
“Fraud is real, it’s better to be safe than sorry,” said Nieto.
The coalition said those seeking to update their legal status should always seek information from trusted organizations and thoroughly vet anyone offering immigration and immigration-related services: Question them, ask them about their credentials, what licenses they hold, where they studied, and what makes them qualified to provide these services.
Castro said promoting public awareness is key, but resources for such education are lacking. Language barriers often prevent communities from being able to access valuable information leading them to seek help from scammers. The coalition will be ramping up its messaging on notario fraud, including a social media campaign to inform those seeking naturalization about their options and how to reach out to trusted community partners, said Castro.
“We’re very concerned because it’s an issue we often hear about even when we don’t have news about the potential legalization of 11 million undocumented folks in the country,” Castro said.
Fear of deportation can also prevent victims from coming forward to seek help when they have been scammed.
Vida Lin, president of the Asian Community Development Council, said she is concerned that fear might prevent those in the Asian and Pacific Islander community from reaching out if they fall prey to fraud. However, she is hopeful that the center’s outreach to those who are undocumented in the community since the pandemic started, including cash assistance, has created more trust.
“We identified a lot who were undocumented,” Lin said. “We are trying to be a trusted organization they can come to and I think we built that in the last year.”
Lin said NIC has helped her organization expand what it can do for the Asian and Pacific Islander community.
“Getting this coalition together helps when these things come up,” Lin said. “We can reach out to each other and say ‘hey this is what’s going on’.”
The coalition is also working to partner with the Governor’s Office for New Americans to prioritize the issue of notario fraud and other immigration-related services.
“Unfortunately it hasn’t been a priority for the state so there isn’t actually someone who upholds the laws in our (Nevada Revised Statutes),” Castro said. “We need the support of the state government to make sure there is someone who is actually going to make sure the law is being followed so that our communities don’t fall prey to this.”
Crimes seeking to take advantage of vulnerable populations, including immigrants, are a priority for Attorney General Aaron Ford, according to his office.
The office is cooperating with other state programs to create an awareness campaign about Notario fraud, with commercials and radio advertisements in both English and Spanish across the state.
“If any Nevadan feels they are being taken advantage of, they are encouraged to check the facts, read our tips, and file a complaint with our office or contact the Home Again program,” said a spokesperson in Ford’s office.