In Texas, a push to stop scammers targeting immigrants

December 29, 2011

The logjam in Washington over immigration reform has led to an unintended consequence: Fraud. For years, the federal government in San Antonio has targeted so-called “notarios,” or scammers who promise miracles to immigrants who need legal papers. Fronteras correspondent Hernán Rozemberg reports the effort is now gaining national attention.

HERNÁN ROZEMBERG: These notarios can charge several thousand dollars for work visas, green cards or citizenship applications. Sometimes it works. Most of the time, it doesn’t.

GOVERNMENT PSA: Beware of immigration scams. The wrong help can hurt ...

HERNÁN ROZEMBERG: This is a public service ad from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS. The San Antonio regional office has been at the forefront of pursuing immigration scammers. For years, USCIS has teamed up with the Texas Attorney General’s Office to identify and prosecute swindlers. Wiley Blakeway is the USCIS Field Office Director here.

WILEY BLAKEWAY: Someone will come to our counter. And they will tell us a horror story of how they had paid thousands of dollars for what they thought was a visa that was being filed for their nephew and of course you can’t file a visa for your nephew. And they didn’t realize that and then they’d go check on it and they don’t get anything. So they would come to us. So this was how these kinds of cases would get started.

HERNÁN ROZEMBERG: Blakeway’s office refers such victims to Greg Abbott, the Texas Attorney General who has built a reputation as a hardliner against immigration scam artists. His spokeswoman Teresa Farfán says 65 have been shut down in the last 8 years. Many times they’re easy to spot in local strip malls.  The signs say “notario,” or notary. But Farfán says there’s a huge difference.

TERESA FARFAN: In the state of Texas when a notary public advertises as a “notario público” in Spanish, they’re breaking the law. This is because “notario publico” has a different connotation in Latin America. A “notario publico” is a highly sophisticated attorney. But in Texas a notary public can only witness the signing of legal documents.

HERNÁN ROZEMBERG: Catholic Charities in San Antonio has tried to bring attention to this issue. The agency came up with the motto for the federal public awareness campaign. Linda Brandmiller says fraud victims stream into her office nearly every day.

LINDA BRANDMILLER: The first word I think about is victimization. It’s a way to prey on the most vulnerable in our communities by enticing them to submit things to the government, often times with dire consequences.

HERNÁN ROZEMBERG: While most immigrants don’t know they’re being scammed, some are actually aware that notarios may be too good to be true. They may have been told by a lawyer that they can’t get legal status. But right around the corner there’s a notario whose promises seem heavenly. Paul Parsons is an immigration lawyer in Austin who has been sounding the alarm for 30 years. He says backlog in Washington is making the problem worse than ever.

PAUL PARSONS: People are so desperate for hope that the first person that tells them good news, they are willing to pay happily.

LUIS ROJAS: Bueno, yo me llamo Luis Manuel Rojas ...

HERNÁN ROZEMBERG: Luis Rojas says he didn’t know any better. He swam across the Rio Grande and moved to San Antonio in 1979. He gained legal residency through an amnesty years later. But it was a popular notaria who helped him successfully apply for citizenship. He went back to her to get a green card for his wife. This time it didn’t go so well.

LUIS ROJAS: Ella dijo que tenía una cuenta con inmigración, que estaba metiendo el dinero ahí pero era pura mentira …

HERNÁN ROZEMBERG: Rojas says the notaria told him she had submitted the application. But it turned out to be a lie. No forms were sent and to this day Rojas says the notaria promises to give back more than $3,000 she owes him.

LUIS ROJAS: Me siento más seguro con un abogado …

HERNÁN ROZEMBERG: Rojas eventually gave up trying to get his money back. He’s now working through a licensed immigration lawyer. And that, he says, makes him feel more at ease. For their part, many notarios feel wrongly targeted. Yet several contacted for this story refused to go on tape. Clara Hernández was the exception.

CLARA HERNANDEZ: I was helping people, I was not hurting people.

HERNÁN ROZEMBERG: Hernández is the owner of Clara’s Multiservicios in Amarillo, in the Texas Panhandle. She was sued by the state Attorney General for posing as immigration lawyer. She says she didn’t know she was breaking the law. She settled with a $5,000 fine and agreed to quit providing immigration advice. But she remains defiant, insisting immigrants can apply on their own.

CLARA HERNANDEZ: I tell them, look, there’s the number. Do you know how to type? Do you know how to get into the Internet? Do you know how to read? If you do it wrong, don’t worry, they send it back and you do whatever needs to be done. They don’t really need to go to a lawyer to do their own paperwork.

HERNÁN ROZEMBERG: She’s technically right. The government offers most immigration forms for free online. But scammers are now also stepping into the 21st century. They’re setting up Web sites that look government sponsored. They fool immigrants into submitting application fees. It’s a fresh reminder for anti-notario forces. There are now 27 cities that model San Antonio’s effort, and more will be added next year. A special agency site on notario scammers has received more than 75,000 hits since the campaign was launched in June.

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