Infamous as the setting for many cases of high-profile financial fraud, South Florida is also home to a relatively unknown scam that targets the region’s large immigrant population, cheating many of them for thousands of dollars for “expert” immigration services that are never delivered.
The coverage and headlines of President Joe Biden’s immigration-related executive orders and the recently proposed immigration reform bill has left many in Miami-Dade’s foreign-born population both excited and confused. That confusion could cause some to fall prey to fraudulent schemes.
Oscar Hernan Londoño, executive director of WeCount!, a South Dade immigrant workers’ center, said an increase in notario (notary) fraud is already occurring in different areas throughout Miami-Dade County.
“Many of our members have already reported notaries who are charging for applications that don’t exist or encouraging them to pay large sums of money with promises of citizenship,” Londoño said.
Adonia Simpson, a private immigration attorney for Americans for Immigrant Justice, a non-profit law group, said that all of this is against the law. A majority of states have laws specifically regulating unauthorized practice of immigration law. Some, especially those with large immigrant populations such as Florida, have laws regulating the use and translation of “notary public,” or permitting victims to sue false lawyers.
She recommends not applying for anything, as there is no kind of quick process or amnesty that’s being provided by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
“There is no such thing until it’s reported by Congress or the president,” Simpson said.
Those particularly at risk of fraud and scam are people whose English is limited and don’t have proper access to a platform that enables them to better understand the complex immigration laws and regulations.
Local immigration organizations in South Florida are working to address this issue by setting up phone banks and sharing information. But Amy Morales, an activist working with Unidos U.S. and Dream Defenders, warns that the immigrant community is still too exposed to misinformation campaigns on the recent immigration developments.
“For new immigrants who have just arrived to the U.S. and don’t fully grasp how the immigration process works, they have to be careful of what they read online or see within their communities,” said Morales. “It’s easy to get taken advantage of if one doesn’t pay close attention to what’s going on around them.”
Accurate data about immigration legal-services fraud is scarce according to State’s Attorney spokesman Ed Griffith. Immigrants are typically hesitant to report fraud for fear of being deported. While there isn’t much information on the scam-risk immigrants face, it is not uncommon.
Relying on notaries for legal advice can place a clients’ immigration case in jeopardy, or worse, in deportation proceedings. The price is a hefty one to pay, with thousands of dollars going into scammers’ pockets. That economic toll could be exacerbated during the pandemic, as Hispanics in the U.S., a group that makes up 69% of the population in Miami-Dade County, have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-related economic downturn, according to the Pew Institute.
To avoid notary scams, Londoño recommends always asking about the qualifications of immigration service agencies and asking to see copies of their bar certificates before letting them provide legal advice. It’s also important to request a receipt when paying for any legal services, and to carefully review contracts before signing them.
“There’s precedent to be followed, and we have to make sure everyone in the [immigrant] community is going about things the right way,” he said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”