Notario Fraud: From IRCA to Present Day
It would surprise many immigrants from Central and South American countries to learn that a “notary public”, or a “notario publico”, performs a completely different role in the United States than in their country of origin. Throughout Latin America the word “notario” describes someone trained as an attorney who has the right to represent clients and draft contracts. In home countries for many immigrants in the United States a notario would be qualified to play a legitimate and powerful role in immigration proceedings — but not here in the United States.
In the U.S., the term “notary public” describes a different profession and set of responsibilities. Notary publics, while able bear official witness to the signing of legal documents, have no authority to draft or even select those documents. Becoming a notary in the U.S. can involve no more than a few hours of training, passing a background check and paying a licensing fee to a state agency.
This linguistic ambiguity has created an opportunity for unqualified individuals to victimize immigrants who need legal services. Due to the shortage of affordable legal counsel, and the high demand for assistance in immigration proceedings, these “notario publicos” or notarios have been successful in selling fraudulent services to non-citizens, often doing more harm than good to this vulnerable population. The negative effects of notarios can range from loss of documentation and funds for immigrants, to the worst-case scenarios in which clients unnecessarily face deportation.
Indeed, the term “notario” has been misused so often in the United States that “notario fraud” has become shorthand for a variety of unlawful practices that target Spanish-speaking immigrants seeking legal services. To control for fraud, only two groups of individuals are authorized and qualified to provide immigration related legal services today: licensed attorneys and BIA accredited representatives housed in a non-profit community or faith-based organization.
The market for unlicensed legal services is still strong today, as there continues to be a lack of adequate affordable legal representation for non-citizens. Fifty-six percent of individuals who appeared before immigration judges in the United States in fiscal year 2012 had legal representation (Department of Justice 2003). This is an improvement over previous years—45% had legal representation in FY2008, and representation hovered close to this statistic for much of the 2000s (Department of Justice 2003; Department of Justice 2013). Yet, this is still symptomatic of an ongoing failure of the legal sector to provide the appropriate quantity and quality of legal services, and at appropriate costs for a population that is predominantly low-income.
This project investigates patterns of notario fraud by giving an overview of the history of the problem as well as current and future demands. In addition this project investigates successful methods for combatting notario fraud through public education, legal sector training, and regulatory action.
Program Coordinator, Tomas Rivera Policy Institute
In this report we use several terms that are common in the policy and academic literature of immigration issues. For the sake of clarity, these terms are defined here:
Unauthorized/undocumented— Both terms are used to describe immigrants residing within the United States without legal approval.
Notario— Except where noted otherwise, we use this term to denote an unaccredited or unlicensed individual practicing law in the United States. This differs from use of the term to describe a profession in Latin American countries.
Executive Office for Immigration Review— Within the Department of Justice, the EOIR conducts immigration cases and reviews and related administrative hearings.
Board of Immigration Appeals— The BIA is an administrative body within the Executive Office for Immigration Review that reviews appeals for decisions made by immigration judges.
About this project
The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, a university research center with the mission to address the challenges and opportunities of demographic diversity in the 21st century global city, has produced these featured digital publications using the USC Media Curator, an online publishing platform designed to bring together innovative research from across the University of Southern California and beyond. This project curates research relevant for immigrant service providers on the topics of Access & Use of Technology, Access & Use of Financial Services, Notario Fraud, and Driver's Licenses for the unauthorized.