POLITICS
11/26/2014 12:40 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2014

Advocates Warn Immigrants To Watch Out For Scammers

President Barack Obama announced new policies last week that could grant deportation relief to millions of people. Now, advocates and immigration lawyers are doing whatever they can to raise awareness of what the policies mean so scammers don't cost those undocumented immigrants both money and their chances at reprieve.

The new relief was announced, but largely won't go into effect until next year. That gives scammers ample time to get started on their efforts, which can include charging exorbitant fees, filling out applications incorrectly, sending forms late or not at all, and facilitating fraud that can cost immigrants their chances at relief and even put them at risk for deportation.

"It's just tragic to see people walk away with their hard-earned money, preying on their desperation to get good with the law," Clarissa Martinez, deputy vice president at the Latino civil rights group National Council of La Raza, said.

Reid Trautz, who works with the Stop Notario Fraud project as part of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said scam efforts have started early in the past, including after Obama announced his first major immigration action, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy in 2012.

"There was about 60 days between the time when the program was announced and the program was put in place before we knew exactly what it was. But we saw these notarios saying, 'Come now, we'll do the forms,' even though there was no form," he said. "We fully expect to see that now."

Notarios, or notary publics, are people who are licensed only to witness signatures -- but they can paint themselves as attorneys in order to take money from immigrants to whom they provide either bad services or no services at all. In Latin American countries and particularly Mexico, a notario publico is more like a lawyer, someone who is licensed and authorized to represent others. But in the U.S., they don't have the licensing that lawyers and accredited representatives have. In some states, there are special licenses for immigration consultants, but they too are only supposed to do things like help to translate forms, Trautz said.

Some may think they are being helpful, but instead are filling out forms incorrectly -- and without the authorization to do so -- in a way that could jeopardize the immigrant's application and their chances for relief in the future. If a notario, immigration consultant or bad lawyer falsifies answers on a form, it could make the immigrant ineligible for relief, and at risk for deportation.

Matthew Kolken, a Buffalo-based immigration attorney, said he saw and heard about numerous scams after the announcement of DACA.

"I started hearing about [the scams] almost immediately," he said. "I would have clients who would call me after they had already been scammed. They were charged $500 for the forms. ... They were asked for very sensitive information and a lot of people had been taken for money. I had one particular client that spent $5,000 on the false promise of a green card. That person took the money and disappeared."

In some cases, a notario will charge double what a lawyer might ask for -- or even more -- while others will ask for smaller fees upfront and then charge more at each step. Kolken said that he has heard of lawyers charging $10,000 for simple DACA cases. The costs may vary for immigration cases, since some are more complicated than others. But if the fee seems suspiciously high, Kolken advised that immigrants get a second opinion.

Kolken said he plans to offer free consultations to help immigrants determine if they're eligible for the new relief, or potentially for other policies they just aren't aware of. He said other lawyers he knows are similarly planning to give free or discounted consultations to potential applicants.

Immigrants should go to lawyers and accredited representatives authorized by the Board of Immigration Appeals for assistance, Trautz said, and nonprofit groups can also be a good resource.

Immigration groups are trying to spread the word about notario fraud and other scams, and to provide their own services where possible. The National Council of La Raza has a site devoted to explaining the new administrative action, as does the Immigration Policy Center. A number of groups partnered to create iAmerica.org to provide further information.

Stop Notario Fraud, a joint project by AILA and the American Bar Association, offers resources to help people avoid scams and get assistance if they've already become a victim. They provide links for finding an immigration attorney, confirming whether someone is licensed to practice immigration law, and checking a Justice Department list of disciplined practitioners. AILA also created public service announcements that can be printed out or placed in local newspapers.

The Stop Notario Fraud website also refers people to sites where they can find nonprofit organizations in their area and pro bono legal assistance.

A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services official said the agency will work with groups to get out accurate information on the executive action. The agency has a website on avoiding scams in English and Spanish, with fact sheets on the application process, common immigration scams and where to find authorized legal help. USCIS is posting information on the new executive actions in English and Spanish as well.

If someone is the victim of a scam, they can report it to the Federal Trade Commission.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) told reported during a press call on Monday that they are on high alert in Illinois to detect scammers.

"A warning to them: We're watching you," he said. "We did not work this arduously to get our community in a position in order for you to exploit and victimize them once again."

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