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Notorious notarios prey on immigrants

Desperate for citizenship or work, victims often are defrauded from within their own communities.

Yun "Karen" Jiang, who didn't want to show her face, is seen in her hardware shop in Philadelphia on October 8, 2013. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Yun "Karen" Jiang, who didn't want to show her face, is seen in her hardware shop in Philadelphia on October 8, 2013. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)Read more

FOR BRIEF moments almost every day, Yun Jiang searches for inner peace near a lottery machine behind the counter of her hardware store in Eastwick.

Then a little bell above the doorway dings, and Jiang's prayers are broken by a bolt of anxiety, a few seconds when she's not sure if it's a customer looking for dirt-bike oil and scratch-off tickets or a stranger looking to ship her off to a country she's all but forgotten.

"I try to calm my mind, ask to be not as scared as I am," Jiang said at her store recently. "But I never know. So many years it's been like this, and I never know."

Jiang, a Buddhist who came to the United States from southern China more than 20 years ago, should not be worried about her immigration status, her attorney said, because she married a U.S. citizen in 1994, has two children here and has been a law-abiding, taxpaying business owner.

But Jiang is among an untold number of immigrants who experts say have been victimized by people in their own communities - people who aren't qualified to work on complex paperwork, but do so anyway for a steep fee. In Hispanic communities, they are called notarios, and in Asian and Eastern European communities, the sometimes shoddy, often illegal work is frequently done under the guise of "translation services" and "travel agencies."

The notarios often are paid thousands of dollars to prepare citizenship paperwork for the immigrants, some of whom are deported regardless. Others, like Jiang, are put into a seemingly endless deportation process. If things go bad with U.S. Customs or if nothing's done for them at all, few of these immigrants are willing to report the notarios to the authorities out of fear of drawing attention to their immigration status.

"It becomes the perfect crime, because these folks who are in vulnerable positions in their immigration status are desperate to legalize," said Vanessa Stine, a law student at Villanova University. "Notarios prey on this desperation."

Stine started the Notario Fraud Project in the Philadelphia area last year, because the problem is widespread, she said, and because there's been no substantial crackdown by law-enforcement agencies. If notarios are prosecuted, it's usually under the charge of "unauthorized practice of law," and the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office says no one's been charged with that crime in more than four years.

Western states, particularly Texas and Nevada, have cracked down harder on notarios, with criminal prosecutions, and earlier this month, a bill was introduced in the Pennsylvania General Assembly that would prohibit nonlawyers from using the words notario or notario publico in their advertising.

"In Latin countries, the notario publico is an attorney who has the education and credentials equivalent to a U.S. attorney," said Bill Anderson, vice president of legislative affairs with the National Notary Association. "When people in the United States see notario publico on a sign, or on a flier or an ad, they think this person has the same credentials as back home."

22 victims interviewed

At a recent presentation for lawyers titled "Protect Your Immigrant Clients from Legal Fraud," Stine spoke about the 22 "victims" in the Philadelphia area from the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Ecuador and Mexico whom she said she has interviewed for her project. Most were referred to notarios by friends or advertisements they had seen in newspapers or heard on the radio, and they paid as much as $15,000, she said.

Seeking permanent residency, two men she called "Pablo" and "Miguel" each paid $10,000 to a man who falsely claimed to be a lawyer, Stine said. After 18 months, the men found that no paperwork had been filed on their behalf, and the man would not refund their money, she said.

"They assume these people are trustworthy, but having advertisements just means they paid for ad space," Stine told her small audience in a Center City conference room.

No one interviewed for this story was willing to identify known notarios or even unscrupulous lawyers who work with them, because it's often difficult to prove illegal activity without victims coming forward.

One North Philly immigration-services business owner, whose name came up repeatedly in interviews with local lawyers and immigration experts, denied defrauding customers, and instead blamed immigration attorneys.

"I'm a legal assistant. We do immigration work, yes, but I'm not one of these so-called notarios," said the man, whose name is being withheld because he has not been charged with a crime. "We often do pro-bono work, but these lawyers have a license to print money."

Pennsylvania has rules about the unauthorized practice of law, said Douglas Grannan, a Philadelphia immigration lawyer, "but the reaction I've seen from the city is not very strong."

In New Jersey, Jeff DeCristofaro, a lawyer with the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice, said that not all notarios are incompetent with immigration paperwork, but that many still practice law without a degree and often put profits over the best outcome for the immigrant.

"In New Jersey, there are very specific rules about notaries. They are not allowed to give any legal advice on a legal form, period," he said. "They can help someone type it or translate it, but that's about it."

DeCristofaro said specific non-attorneys are certified by the Board of Immigration Appeals, but they only include people working through nonprofits and church groups. Notarios have contacted the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice seeking information about accreditation, he said.

Fees charged by the Camden center are nominal, DeCristofaro said, but even fees charged by private immigration attorneys pale in comparison to the prices that notarios charge their customers.

"We see people come in here who might have just paid $1,500 for something that was absolutely worthless," he said.

'Worst kind of bottom-feeding'

Jiang started off at a "travel agency" in Chinatown in New York in the mid-'90s that she said consisted of a room with a table. She was trying to file for political asylum, and her file was then sold to several law firms. When she was not notified about a hearing and missed it, she was marked for deportation. Eventually, she was arrested and forced to wear an ankle bracelet.

"She was ordered removed while she was married to a U.S. citizen," said lawyer Grannan, who is trying to sort out Jiang's case. "I think she spent in excess of $20,000, with no receipts. It's the worst kind of bottom-feeding."

Grannan said Jiang probably thinks he'll let her down too, as so many others have done over the past two decades. But at her hardware store, amid the rat traps and toilet plungers, two bright-red banners flank the door with the bell above it, with Chinese lettering printed in black.

"They represent hope," Jiang said. "It's hope for better times to come."