By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Advocates for immigrants in our area say an untold number of them have fallen prey to scam artists offering purported immigration law services for which the predators charge thousands of dollars, and some of their victims end up getting deported as a result.
"Unfortunately, you have a immigrants where English is not their first language and they are often unsure where to turn," says Philippe Weisz, managing attorney at HIAS Pennsylvania. He says many undocumented immigrants turn to people within their own community known as "notarios," who offer to help them get proper documentation.
But many of these notaries are not licensed attorneys and the customer ends up losing a lot of money.
"Immigration law is extremely complicated," says Weisz. "Many of these individuals simply go to these notaries and choose someone who speaks authoritatively or says things that make sense to them. In the best circumstances, individuals are losing thousands of dollars. In the worst circumstances, they are losing their opportunity for relief to apply for certain benefits -- and put themselves at risk for deportation."
Weisz's group goes into the community to raise awareness and tells people not to go to so-called notaries. But victims continue to surface.
"We see this all the time," he says, "particularly when there is immigration reform discussion in Washington, DC. That's when the situation becomes more serious."
Vanessa Stine, a law student at Villanova University, agrees.
"Folks are really desperate to legalize and are willing to pay a lot of money," she says. She started the Notario Fraud Project last year to raise awareness. "It's frustrating when people are trying to do the right thing and get the wrong help," she says.
Stine, who worked with the Philadelphia-based Friends of Farm Workers, says the issue came up quite often, so she is working to make change by providing information to the immigrant community and offering referral services.
Stine notes a big problem is language: in some Latino countries, a "notario publico" is a trusted attorney.
"It's a troubling term in the US," says Stine. "They are not adequately trained to advise someone on these issues. And it's illegal to engage in the unauthorized practice of law."
Stine says efforts to crack down on these notorious "notarios" is tough, in part because undocumented immigrants are unlikely to report the fraud due to fear of deportation.
In addition, she says, it will require raising awareness in the law enforcement community, where many of its members think the notarios are not committing a crime.
Both Stine and Weisz advise anyone seeking immigration advice to find a licensed attorney. For more information on the "Notario Fraud Project," e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 267-540-3140. To reach HIAS Pennsylvania, go to hiaspa.org.
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