By STACY ANN JONES
ANNAPOLIS (November 24, 2010)Michael Griffin of Baltimore needed copies of his immigration papers so he could apply for U.S. citizenship.
A few days after filling out a form online, a man called his house claiming to be a lawyer and asked for a credit card number so he could process a fee. A few weeks later, Griffin had received neither an update nor his documents.
He is among what lawyers and charities say are a growing number of people unknowingly seeking help with immigration matters from unqualified consultants.
"They said they were affiliated with the government and they could take care of getting immigration papers," Griffin said.
Some lawyers and charities say it's frighteningly easy to take advantage of people seeking help with immigration matters, especially if they're undocumented or don't speak English. The consultants, also referred to as "notarios," because the title in Spanish refers to someone who is licensed to practice law, seem to offer a path towards residency or citizenship without high attorney fees or language barriers.
In fact, a study published by the Institute for Research on Multiculturalism and International Labor at Binghamton University said 13 percent of immigrants reported using an immigration consultant in lieu of an attorney.
Griffin, born in Montreal, has been in the country most of his life. By the time he wanted to apply for citizenship, he said, his brother had accidentally thrown out his documents while cleaning out their parents' house.
He eventually earned his citizenship, but filed a complaint with the Consumer Protection Division in Maryland's Attorney General's Office last December against a firm calling itself "Harris Companies, Inc.". A mediator spent three months sending letters to an address listed for the company and the federal office in Texas where Griffin's $290 had supposedly been sent, but to no avail.
The phone number they listed now connects to a private person.
People who realize they've been defrauded usually do the same as Griffin, but their letters and reports rarely make a big impact.
"It's like Whac-A-Mole with these people. As soon as you hit one and get 'em gone, they pop up somewhere else," said Sharon Nelson, the chair of the Virginia Bar's Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee. She said the one-year statute of limitations makes it tough to file a suit in time.
Raquel Guillory, spokeswoman for the Maryland Attorney General's consumer protection division, said the office has received a total of only three complaints against notarios. She said the office hasn't had any success with two of the three complaints, and wasn't able to provide a copy of or details for the third.
"We are totally toothless," said Gerry Chapman, an immigration lawyer in Greensboro, N.C.
He's a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and chairs its consumer protection committee.
Chapman said he hears about notario fraud once every month or two, and the rate of reports has increased in the past two years, but his committee of volunteers has limited time and even less authority.
He said he's found that clients who work with unauthorized consultants risk missing deadlines, having inaccurate paperwork filed on their behalf or being given forged acceptance letters. Cleaning up the mess left in the wake of a notario can be daunting, Chapman said.
"Some are difficult, most are impossible. You can't undo the damage," he said. "You can contact the client and let them know this is what's about to happen to you: A deportation case.'"
It's important to inform people before they hire an unauthorized consultant, he said, because clients are usually reluctant to turn on someone who they think has helped them.
"It's extremely rare. There's a fear factor of being ostracized if they rat somebody out or they're afraid of bearing the brunt of that person's anger," Chapman said. "Even though their case may have gotten completely wrecked, they still view that person as knowledgeable."
Nelson said the Virginia bar has found a way to give undocumented witnesses some peace of mind.
"We have authority to do a sting operation with our own investigators. Once the investigator has gone in and seen the notario offering legal services, they become the witness," she said. "We're making sure we police the profession so these charlatans don't victimize people in the future."
David Zetooney, an attorney with Bryan Cave LLP in Washington said he was surprised to hear a story on the radio claim that there were no laws against notarios.
"I heard that piece and said, 'No, that's wrong,'" Zetoony said. He's not an immigration lawyer, but thought his background in consumer protection could offer a new solution to an old problem.
He started doing pro bono work for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of D.C. two years ago. By filing civil suits against two people, one in Virginia and another in Maryland, he's gotten both to sign consent agreements barring them from illegally practicing law or advertising themselves as lawyers.
If one woman so much as hands out business cards claiming she can provide legal services, she'll have to pay $25,000 for each person who's been given a card.
Zetoony gives seminars to encourage immigration attorneys to pursue notarios with consumer protection laws. It's surprisingly common, he said, for people with good intentions to forget that it's illegal to fill out paperwork or provide legal advice without certification.
Zetoony recommends attorneys remind people that their desire to help can have big consequences on someone's immigration status. They can also file complaints with the state bar, Federal Trade Commission or attorney general's office.
Using the Lanham Act, which prohibits lawyers from stealing one another's clients with unfair or deceptive practices, an attorney can file suit against a local notario who uses false advertising.
"The downside is that it takes resources to file a competitive complaint and it's very hard to prove damages," Zetoony said, adding that if a case goes to court it could cost between $10,000 and $20,000. "Only a very altruistic immigration attorney would want to do this with his own money."