Storefront Notarios Victimize New Immigrants, Prompting an L.A. Fraud Clampdown

L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis (D-District 1) is preparing to introduce new legislation that will more strictly regulate so-called immigration consultants, who legal advocates say charge exorbitant fees to immigrants for substandard, and in some cases fraudulent, assistance in completing paperwork.
L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis (D-District 1) is preparing to introduce new legislation that will more strictly regulate so-called immigration consultants, who legal advocates say charge exorbitant fees to immigrants for substandard, and in some cases fraudulent, assistance in completing paperwork.

The chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will introduce a bill in the coming weeks targeting the hundreds of storefront immigration consultants who operate throughout the county.

These "scam artists," according to board chairwoman Hilda L. Solis, are known to charge exorbitant prices for unauthorized, often shoddy — and even fraudulent — services to immigrants who come to them for assistance in gaining lawful status in the United States. These nonlegal service providers are known as notarios in the Spanish-speaking immigrant communities of L.A. 

Immigrant communities in the county are "routinely victimized" by consultants who "prey on our most vulnerable residents," Solis, the bill's author, said in a statement provided to L.A. Weekly. "I have spoken to families who have been strung along for years, paying dollar after dollar, without making any progress on their immigration matters." 

Immigration fraud of this sort is a ballooning problem in California, and especially in Los Angeles, where several hundred such businesses have been operating for years with minimal oversight or regulation. 

The local law would add to existing state regulations laid out in the Immigrant Consultant Act, which requires non-attorneys to apply for accreditation, secure an insurance policy of $100,000 in case of liability, draw up contracts in the client's native language, and post a sign in their offices clarifying that they are not attorneys and not authorized to give legal advice. The new law would set a limit of $75 for non-legal immigration services, such as filling out forms, typing and delivery, and require businesses to post a sign out front that advertises the price limit for such services. 

"This is about making sure that the legal system works for everybody," Solis said.  

On Aug. 26, the prominent San Fernando Valley immigration services organization Hermandad Mexicana Transnacional was found guilty of performing unauthorized paralegal services, while the group's director, Gloria Saucedo, was convicted of practicing law without a license.

L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer's office pressed charges against the organization in March after consumer complaints and an undercover investigation against Saucedo disclosed numerous violations of the Immigrant Consultant Act, along with improper legal advice. Feuer alleged that Saucedo and her business damaged the lives of two women by taking thousands of dollars from them while costing them their legal status. Saucedo pleaded no contest, but a Feuer spokesman said the penalties of restitution to the victims, plus 200 hours of community service and a $2,000 fine, have been stayed by the court, pending Saucedo's appeal.

Rigo Reyes, chief of investigations at the Department of Consumer Affairs, told the L.A. Times there may be as many as 2,500 people unlawfully providing immigration advice in California, often to the detriment of their clients' cases. Daniel Sharp, an immigration attorney with the nonprofit Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), said the number is likely larger, and that "the lion's share, at least half" of these operators are in the Greater Los Angeles area.

One of the victims in the Saucedo case is Maria Delgado, 61, of Mexico City. Delgado hired Hermandad Mexicana Transnacional in 2014 to help her complete and file a routine green card application from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. As green card cases go, Delgagdo's was supposed to be foolproof: She had been married to a native-born American citizen for 25 years, and when her husband died in 2014, the law entitled Delgado, as his widow, to apply for a green card.

On the advice of a neighbor, she hired Hermandad to prepare and file the forms, paying the company a fee of $900 — an exorbitant amount for unlicensed “immigrant consultant” services, according to experts consulted for this story. Delgado knew it was expensive, but she said she trusted in the reputation of Saucedo and her organization as advocates for immigrant rights. "I told Ms. Gloria Saucedo, on more than one occasion, ‘I admire you,’" Delgado says. "She is someone who goes to a lot of meetings, who wants to improve things."

But Delgado's opinion of Saucedo went south after the organization lost track of her case — setting off a chain reaction that nearly resulted in her deportation. She was not notified of a required interview with immigration officials, and when she missed it, her application was canceled, along with her temporary work permit. As a result, she was let go from her job and the Social Security Administration stopped payment on her monthly survivor's benefit. She said she phoned Saucedo directly for help. 

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"I asked if she could tell me the date of the interview," Delgado said. "She tells me it was March 10. This was already October!" 

Saucedo promised Delgado she would reopen the case and try again, but Delgado and lawyers familiar with the case say that no such motion to reopen was actually filed. Eventually, Delgado found help from Joanna Furmanska, managing attorney for the CARECEN office in Van Nuys. Daniel Sharp, the CARECEN attorney who is familiar with the case, said Delgado lost her $1,070 adjustment of status filing fee, which she had to pay a second time, and that she lost months of income from the denial of work authorization, as well as not being able to access her survivor Social Security benefits. 

CARECEN helped Delgado to reapply for her green card and regain her work permit and her survivor benefit before the time limit on her eligibility expired. 

"We suffer so much, and at times we feel as though no one hears us, that we're lost," Delgado said in reference to the difficulties she and other immigrants encounter in applying for legal status. "And when one of us finds people willing to help, to listen, our life is different." 

Saucedo says that the $900 fee that Maria Delgado paid did not cover the prior notification of her interview with immigration officials. Saucedo also claimed credit, on behalf of Hermandad Mexicana Transnacional, for Delgado's successful second attempt to apply for a green card, a claim that Delgado called "an outrageous lie."  

Saucedo says that she received legal accreditation from the Department of Justice's Executive Office of Accreditation Review in September 2015 to continue operating her business. This, not long after the L.A. County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs concluded its undercover investigation of Saucedo and Hermandad Mexicana Transnacional, which led to the charges being filed in March. 

"I'm still accredited, I'm still working, and the office is still open," Saucedo says. 

Daliah Setareh, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said accreditation is less of an issue than the perception of non-attorney immigration counselors in the broader community. Immigration law, she said, is second only to tax law in terms of difficulty.  

"Nonprofit attorneys always look suspiciously upon persons who are not attorneys and do the work of attorneys," Setareh said. "Any box not checked off or form not filed correctly can have dire consequences for someone’s life. It might make someone deportable. That's why legal consultants have special rules. They shouldn't be practicing law." 

To that end , the Consulate General of Mexico in Los Angeles has organized the new program, #JuntosContraElFraude, or #TogetherAgainstFraud,  to raise awareness around immigration fraud in the Latino community. The program, co-sponsored by the Expediente Rojo Project, teaches immigrants to differentiate between an attorney and notarios.


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