Immigrants to the United States face many hurdles along the path to legal residency and citizenship, including burdensome documentation and lack of familiarity with the US bureaucracy.
To overcome the challenges of achieving legal status, immigrants wisely seek legal counsel.
Knowledgeable representation before the US Customs & Immigration Service (USCIS) is critical to their success in gaining a legal foothold in the US.
But this critical element of the process provides a great opportunity for abuse.
Notary Fraud Misleads Immigrants
Notary fraud costs the immigrant community millions of dollars each year. Their hard-earned savings end up in the pocket of a notary, yet they are usually no closer to realizing their American dream.
How does this happen?
Unscrupulous notaries take advantage of desperate immigrants by not making clear that they cannot advise or represent clients in immigration matters. Though they may not actively mislead, their silence aggravates a dangerous misunderstanding on the immigrant’s part.
The misunderstanding arises from the differences between civil law systems and the common law tradition, and is made worse by a fundamental difference between the roles of notaries in the United States and their counterparts abroad.
Notaries in Civil Law Countries
In civil law countries, particularly in Latin America, notaries are attorneys by necessity. Notarios (Spanish), Notaires (French), Notaren (German), and Notaris (Dutch) are fully trained in the law and duly licensed — to varying degrees — to practice before courts and government tribunals.
Civil law notaries are consulted for advice and the drafting of basic documents, including wills, conveyances, and petitions for various government services. Of course, subtle variations apply from country to country, but ultimately, these notaries are viewed as licensed experts in the practice of law — this is dramatically different from common law notaries public.
Civil law notaries are often public officials, many of whom hold their positions in an almost royal succession, with the title of notary passed from father to son or sold outright to the highest bidder.
Even though the job passes from one lawyer to another, seemingly with little regulation, notaries are nonetheless revered as expert members of the legal community. Their help and influence are sought for every manner of legal question.
In Mexico particularly, because they are appointed by state governors, they enjoy great power and prestige, and their acts carry the approval of the state.
Notaries in Common Law Countries
This is not so in the US and other common law jurisdictions. In stark contrast, a US notary functions more as a commissioner of oaths or as an official witness to the signing of documents.
Though valuable and respected in the community, notaries in the US are generally not attorneys (though some attorneys are also notaries). Their authority is quite limited, and their qualifications are significantly less formal or extensive than that of attorneys.
Frequently, notaries are administrative clerks whose notarial seals exist only to aid their employers. Unless they are otherwise trained and admitted to a state bar, they are prohibited from giving legal advice or filing applications on clients’ behalf.
Notary Fraud in the US
The confusion often has devastating effects, with members of America’s immigrant community routinely falling prey to neglect or outright abuse.
Fraudsters describe themselves simply as notaries, and let their victims believe they provide more than they do, in the mistaken belief that US notaries hold the same stature and authority as notaries in the immigrant’s native land.
Immigrants routinely seek a notary’s assistance but fail to secure an attorney, not realizing that a licensed attorney is necessary to provide competent legal advice. They naturally assume that an American notary offering consultation services is comparable to the notario they knew in their old home country.
For an exorbitant fee, the unscrupulous notary assists the immigrant in completing necessary USCIS forms, going so far as to notarize the immigrant’s signature. But they also lead the immigrant to believe that they will file applications with USCIS, and follow up just as an attorney would.
They then do nothing, counting on the immigrant’s ignorance of the process, with no intent of forwarding the documents to the appropriate authorities. Too frequently, the immigrant is so relieved and happy about the prospect of success, he never thinks to ask for copies of the documents.
Where an immigrant is not provided copies of what the notary validates and (allegedly) files, he has no way of demonstrating steps taken in a timely filing. The damage is two-fold: not only does he lose money, he may also lose any chance of ever achieving legal immigrant status. And his recourse is all but nonexistent.
When he contacts the notary regarding his application, he is told simply, “It’s out of my hands — USCIS will answer you when they get to you.” Fearful of drawing attention, the immigrant quietly waits for papers that never come.
Immigrants must never assume that a US notary public is an attorney.
The American Bar Association, many state bar associations, and various advocacy groups have undertaken campaigns to combat the abuse and educate the immigrant community regarding the dangers.
Above all else, legal matters require qualified professionals. This includes certified translations of immigration documents and advice from a licensed, competent attorney who specializes in immigration matters. Even well-intentioned notaries who are unfamiliar with the regulation of the legal profession often fail to challenge or correct the assumptions of immigrants who seek their advice.
If you require translation and/or other immigration support services, contact the professionals at Legal Language to learn how we can assist you.