Fraud targets immigrants seeking to gain legal status

Fraud targets immigrants seeking to gain legal status

February 12th, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

People gather at a vigil in support of immigrants held at Coolidge Park on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn., in the wake of President Donald J. Trump's executive order on immigration. The vigil, titled "We All Belong," was held in partnership with Bridge Refugee Services.

People gather at a vigil in support of...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

When she asked to stay in the United States, she had no idea she had already been deported, technically.

A Georgia woman, who arrived here from Guatemala in the early 2000s, wanted to apply for residency through her husband, a U.S. citizen. So in 2014, she visited attorney Jessica Oliva-Calderin, who helped her fill out the proper paperwork and sent her application to an immigration officer.

Six months passed. Finally, they heard back: The woman couldn't become a resident, because a judge ordered immigration officials to deport her after a hearing in 2008. The woman wasn't in court that day, Oliva-Calderin said. She didn't even know about the hearing. For six years, she lived one police interaction away from deportation.

"She had no idea," Oliva-Calderin said last week.

How does something like that happen? The woman, whom Oliva-Calderin did not identify because she is still in the country illegally, received bad advice from friends when she first arrived in the United States. She wanted a work visa to obtain legal status, and her friends sent her to an immigration consultant in Ellijay, Ga.

She gave the consultant a copy of her birth certificate. She filled out some forms. The consultant sent them to an immigration officer. Then, Oliva-Calderin said, her client heard nothing.

In fact, she was supposed to interview with an immigration officer, who had received her application. The officer mailed a letter to schedule a meeting.

The woman never received it.

Stood up, the officer closed the case. He transferred her file to an immigration court judge, who set a hearing on her status in the country. An employee mailed another letter, announcing the hearing.

The woman never received that, either.

Meanwhile, the woman's consultant quit the business after a grand jury indicted her for unauthorized practice of law. Turned out, she was performing immigration work without proper training. She later pleaded guilty, paid a $2,000 fine, received four years of probation and promised to close up shop, her clients left in the wind.

In 2014, after Oliva-Calderin heard about all of this, she filed a motion with the immigration court, asking a judge to reconsider her client's case. The motion is still pending.

For now, her client stays at home, waiting.

"If she gets picked up tomorrow," Oliva-Calderin said, "she would be processed for removal, unfairly. She's a victim of fraud and deception."

It's hard to say how often something like this happens, an immigrant paying the wrong person to try to gain legal status. Because of the nature of the victim, police and prosecutors rarely hear about these crimes, known as notario fraud. But experts across the country say the practice is common.

The American Bar Association has a division dedicated to trying to stop notario fraud. So does the American Immigration Lawyers Association. In addition to Oliva-Calderin, local immigration attorneys Brittany Thomas Faith, Martin Lester and Terry Olsen all said they have known plenty of clients who were defrauded before coming to their offices.

The effects can be devastating. Immigrants can lose thousands of dollars. And worse, from their perspective, their improperly filled out applications land on the desk of immigration officers, announcing in neon lights exactly where to find them.

And because of President Donald Trump's executive orders on immigration, notarios could see a boom in business this year. As policies change and stories of ICE raids spread, immigrants become uncertain. And when they become uncertain, they look for help.

"It's going to be a big issue again," Olsen said.

Invisible fraud

Linguistics play an important role in notario fraud. The term "notario" literally means notary. But the meaning of "notary" can range, depending on the culture.

In the U.S., someone can become a notary without much formal training. In some Latin American countries, though, a notario goes to school for several years, receives a license and is allowed to practice certain types of law.

For some new immigrants, the cultural distinction is lost when they meet a notary here. What's more, the notarios might be located in smaller offices and strip malls, right in the middle of an immigrant community. Though prices vary, they're sometimes less expensive than a formal lawyer. They live in the area, too. They send their children to the same schools and go to the same churches.

By comparison, some local immigration attorneys are white and practice in downtown Chattanooga. A natural barrier exists, Faith said.

For someone running a scheme, an immigrant can be an easy target. They might not know how to report a crime, or they might not feel comfortable going to the police, or they might have trouble explaining what happened in English.

"The malpractice insurance cost for immigration attorneys is very low," Sarah Owings, an Atlanta lawyer, said grimly. "Our mistakes get deported."

Though never prosecuted on a wide scale, law enforcement has cracked down on notario fraud here and there for decades. In 1977, the Florida Supreme Court imposed injunctions and fines against five people for the improper practice of immigration law.

Official statistics are low. A spokesperson for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation didn't know of any notario fraud cases that had been investigated. And the Georgia Bureau of Investigation lists three cases since 2008.

The U.S. Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review, meanwhile, has received only 490 complaints about the issue throughout the country since 2012.

Locally, immigration attorneys could not remember any formal, public crackdown on notarios in the region — at least, not closer than the case Oliva-Calderin found in Ellijay. Dalton police spokesman Bruce Frazier said he was not aware of any investigations by his department.

"If we had somebody report it, we would definitely look into it and investigate it," he said. "But we haven't had complaints. Unfortunately, members of the Hispanic population get targeted for fraud, at times maybe disproportionately. But in terms of fraud by notarios, we don't have any reports."

Frazier said the department has worked hard to build bridges with the Latino community in Dalton, which makes up about 48 percent of the city's population. Police administrators have met with leaders of the community. They have heard of notario fraud in passing, but the department had not received a formal report.

Anecdotes, indeed, are the prevailing marks of notario fraud, rather than concrete data. Attorneys and accountants told the Times Free Press last week plenty of stories of clients scorned.

A notario filled out application forms designated for people not yet in the U.S., even though a client lived here for years. Another one filled out tax returns that falsified how many dependents a client could claim, trying to help their client receive money back from the government. This set them up for failure when they tried to apply for residency.

Still another told clients they were eligible for citizenship under a made-up presidential order, charging hundreds of dollars. Others missed key deadlines for filing paperwork. And others let immigrants apply for legal status even though they had criminal records, setting them up for deportation.

"Notario fraud is kind of similar to somebody who thinks they're a doctor because they read a medical book and wants to do surgery in the garage," Lester said. "That's against the law. And there's a reason it's against the law."

Within the immigrant community in Dalton, though, some believe notarios are unfairly painted with a broad brush. While some lawyers say notarios charge the same rate as them, others are much less expensive. And though legal counsel is always a good idea, some members of the community don't think you need to go to a lawyer for every document.

America Gruner, the director of the Coalition of Latino Leaders in Dalton, said her team helped 900 immigrants sign up for temporary residency through Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. She said they never ran into a problem. She has helped with other paperwork, too, though she brings an attorney on board for complicated cases — such as for a client with a minor criminal record.

"We know it's sensitive," she said. "We're careful about what we do. We have been doing it for 11 years. None of the cases we have submitted have gotten in trouble."

Preventing the problem

While advocates try to stop the fraud by raising public awareness, real wins occur in a courtroom. Those are few and far between, but they do happen. In 2015, a jury convicted a San Jose, Calif., woman who ran an immigration consulting business for Filipino nationals, charging thousands to apply for visas even though they didn't qualify for them. A judge ordered her to pay six victims a total of $43,000 in restitution.

In 2014, a federal judge ordered a Baltimore-based immigration services group to pay up to $616,000 to their immigrant clients.

Bringing victims on board can be difficult, given their undocumented status in the country. However, some Georgetown University law students and professors proposed in a 2013 report that prosecutors could offer immigrants a U-Visa.

Created by Congress in 2000, a U-Visa qualifies immigrants for temporary residency if they have been a victim of certain offenses. A law enforcement official has to fill out paperwork with an immigration agent, telling them that the immigrant has helped with an investigation or prosecution.

The intention behind the offer is to help curb high-profile crimes, like drug trade and labor trafficking. But, the authors of the Georgetown report suggested, a prosecutor could use the U-Visa to attack fraud cases as well, if the suspect committed other crimes in the process, like extortion or witness tampering.

But this concept relies on federal policy, which is subject to change. Now at a faster rate than before.

"That's my fear," said Oliva-Calderin. "As the law is evolving with new executive actions coming down the pipeline, there are going to be unscrupulous individuals that are going to take advantage of people."

Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com.


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