How to Avoid Notario Fraud

How to Avoid Notario Fraud


In Part One of my series on How to Avoid Immigration Fraud, I advised prospective consumers of immigration services to obtain qualified counsel. I provided an overview of the education, training and certification standards that are in place to assure the competency of American immigration lawyers. I explained how to identify a qualified immigration attorney and how to verify the identity and qualifications of an attorney. In Part Two, I advised visa applicants on how to avoid immigration fraud by managing and maintaining control of their applications and to seek only an Honest Visa based on a completely truthful application. In this section, I will instruct you on how to avoid notario fraud, a distinct and widespread form of immigration fraud.

The Notario Publico

According to U.S.C.I.S., in many Latin American countries, the term “notario público” (Spanish for “public notary”) means something very different than what it means in the United States. In many Spanish-speaking nations, “notarios” are powerful attorneys with special legal credentials. In the U.S., however, public notaries are people who perform duties such as witnessing the signing of documents. Being a “notario público” does not authorize someone to provide you with any legal services related to immigration. “Notarios” capitalize on the confusion the term creates in the minds of many Spanish speaking immigrants to the U.S. They lure those in need of legal help in with easy promises of quickly “fixing papers” only to systematically defraud their victims of sometimes large sums of money.

In reality, these “notarios” have little or no legal training or ability to serve the immigration needs of those who choose to hire them. They may convince their victims of their legitimacy by quickly obtaining an immigration benefit on their behalf so that the scam seems legitimate. One common method is to file an asylum claim. The scam victim receives work authorization and the ability to remain what their asylum application is pending. What the notarios do not tell the victims is that asylum is very difficult to obtain. While the asylum application is pending, notarios charge their victims increasingly large sums of money for services that are not performed and advice that is wholly unqualified. Victims are often surprised to be deported at about the same time as they make their last payment to the notario. Those who challenge the notario may be threatened with deportation or even violence from these criminal fraudsters. The personal, family and immigration consequences of notario fraud are truly tragic.

The BIA Accredited Representative

Another common form of notario fraud is when a non-lawyer holds himself out as being authorized to practice before the Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”), Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) and the immigration courts as a current or former “accredited representative.” The BIA does in fact accredit a relatively small number of accredited representatives to provide representation for indigent persons through recognized not-for-profit organizations that do not have an attorney on staff. The BIA accreditation process requires that accredited agents have a broad working knowledge of immigration law and demonstrate good moral character. It is important to note that the representative is permitted to provide advice on immigration matters to clients of the recognized charitable organization only. You will not find a BIA accredited representative legitimately making their services available to the public for a fee. Having previously been an accredited representative does not authorize or entitle anyone to dispense legal advice. Where you find this practice in place, it is wise to to look elsewhere for immigration advice if you wish to avoid notario fraud.

Paralegals, Law Students and Law Firm Employees

A paralegal is an individual, qualified by education, training or work experience, who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency, or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible. Essentially, a paralegal is a secretary or clerk who works under the supervision of an attorney. A paralegal may conduct legal research or draft legal documents but may not render legal advice or represent anyone before a court or tribunal. Paralegal qualifications vary and are inconsistent between states. Law students and other law firm employees perform similar tasks and subject to the same prohibitions against the unauthorized practice of law. Paralegals, law students and law firm employees who hold themselves out as being qualified to render legal advice should be shunned by those who wish to avoid notario fraud.

The U.S. Based Immigration Agency

While notarios prey primarily on Latin American immigrants already in the U.S., there are many immigration scams which rely on confusion about the abilities of “visa agents,” “consultants” and others working in the immigration field under different titles to provide legal analysis and advice to immigration consumers. These scams are also properly termed as notario fraud as they rely on a similar method of deception. Many state laws prohibit immigration agencies from doing anything more than filling out forms on behalf of visa applicants. The agencies may translate responses from the applicant’s native language into English and place the responses on the form. If an applicant speaks no English and is completely unable to comprehend the form, the services of what is basically a translation agency may be needed. The problem arises when these entities, however they may refer to themselves, do more than merely assist applicants in filling out forms. State laws regulating the unauthorized practice of law or specifically regulating immigration consultancies typically forbid their operators from even advising a customer as to which form they need to fill out in order to apply for an immigration benefit. The business model of immigration consultancies is not viable when the agency merely provides translation services. In my opinion, the vast non-legal industry that has grown up around the provision of immigration services within the United States relies on confusion among consumers as to the ability of these entities to provide qualified legal advice and is completely built around engagement in the unauthorized practice of law.

Immigration Agencies Outside the U.S.

A more difficult problem arises when visa applicants seek the services of immigration consultancies outside the U.S. The question may not be so much as to whether an agency is authorized to provide immigration consultancy as to their ability to competently do so. Regulatory regimes vary greatly between countries. Canadian immigration and citizenship representatives, for example, must meet certain criteria, are subject to strict regulation similar to American lawyers and are able to provide legal advice for a fee to those who might wish to immigrate to Canada. Other countries may maintain similar regulatory regimes that focus on protecting immigration law consumers or may have no regulations in place at all. What regulations may be in place may be in the nature of general business regulations that do not include any proven knowledge of or expertise in U.S. immigration law. To avoid notario fraud when utilizing the services of migration agency outside the United States, inquire as to what their qualifications actually are and what local regulations require.

Non-U.S. Licensed Lawyers

A similar situation arises when lawyers licensed outside the U.S. provide advice on U.S. immigration matters. As with international migration agencies, legal authorization to dispense such advice may exist. However, the ability to competently advise on matters of foreign law may be lacking. I wish to qualify this statement by noting that I have the greatest respect for foreign lawyers throughout the world who most often undergo extensive educational preparation, training and testing that is similar to the licensing process for American lawyers that I described in Part One of this series on how to avoid immigration fraud. As an American lawyer engaged in the practice of international law, I am often asked to give advice on the laws of foreign jurisdictions. I always refrain. I recognize that while I may be able to correctly answer the question due to my general knowledge and experience, my answer will almost certainly lack the deep context and perspective that my colleagues licensed in the jurisdiction can provide. In my opinion, and with due respect to foreign lawyers who may render advice on U.S. immigration laws, the interests of the client are better served by deference and referral to qualified legal practitioners trained in the laws of the United States.


Travel and immigration to the U.S. are elephantine industries. Like any type of business, many unqualified companies and persons seek to enter the market space and reap financial benefits without consideration of the quality of services that they provide to their customers or the consequences suffered by those same customers when the advice rendered damages their immigration and thus their economic and often family interests. If you choose to deal with anyone other than an licensed American immigration attorney, follow the instructions I have provided in this article if you wish to avoid notario fraud. Even following these instructions, which I have attempted to make as clear as possible, it remains very difficult for a consumer of immigration law services to avoid notario fraud. As I explained fully in Part One of this series, the only certain way to avoid notario fraud and other types of immigration fraud is to retain the services of a licensed American immigration attorney.