For many years, notary frauds have been common occurrences in South Philadelphia’s immigrant community. However, recently more initiatives to help victims of “notario” fraud are developing in Philadelphia, which would create stronger ties between law officials and the city’s flourishing immigrant population.
Notarios públicos – “notary publics” in English – disguise as legitimate law offices that offer unlawful legal assistance to local immigrants. Since “notarios” is a term given to lawyers in Mexico and other Latin American countries, there tends to be confusion within the Latino immigrant community and many of them are deceived into thinking that the notarios are legitimate.
Although notaries’ claim to have law degrees and immigration law expertise, many of them do not actually have law licenses and are not authorized to give professional legal advice of any kind. Several Philadelphia groups, including legislators, seek to put an end to notario frauds and to protect victims of the scams.
Councilman-At-Large Dennis O’Brien, along with the support of Councilwoman Maria Quiñones, proposed the “Notario Fraud Bill” in March 2014 in front of Philadelphia’s Public Safety Committee. Recently O’Brien has met with local stakeholders to strengthen the bill and create solidarity between community leaders who are passionate about this issue.
“We really want to pick [the stakeholders’] brains and get the language [of the bill] right,” said Matthew Braden, O’Brien’s Chief of Staff. “It’s a tremendous amount of collaboration and it’s all part of the process.”
O’Brien and his staff have been in talks with several organizations to expand the “Notario Fraud Project,” which is steadily a significant part of the city’s fight against notario fraud.
Vanessa Stine, a recent Villanova University School of Law graduate, created the Notario Fraud Project after an internship with Friends of Farmworkers, a non-profit organization that offers free social and legal services to low-wage immigrant workers.
After talking with many immigrant workers during her internship, she noticed that many of them were victims of notario fraud. Philadelphia’s lack of resources for notario fraud victims inspired Stine to create this fairly new organization.
“I started the Notario Fraud Project to begin centralizing and documenting stories of immigration fraud in a systematic way,” Stine said.
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Stine did not initially have a clear plan on how she would execute the project. Through the National Lawyer’s Guild at Villanova, she was able to develop the resources and means to making the Notario Fraud Project a reality.
With the help of volunteers, Stine curated research on notario fraud and created a questionnaire and hotline for victims. Victims were led to the Notario Fraud Project through referrals from other non-profit organizations that work with immigrant communities.
“Many organizations give legal services, but they don’t necessarily go in-depth on the specific notario fraud incidents or keep record of them,” Stine explained. “Trying to get local organizations to encourage victims to be interviewed is difficult, but it would allow us to better understand this issue.”
Notario fraud victims are reluctant to be candid about the scams, due to the increased vulnerability of being reported to immigration officers.
“It takes a lot of time to build trust with the victims,” Stine said. “But we try to work on it and help them out in every way we can.”
Other community groups like HIAS Pennsylvania are working to help victims get their feet back on the ground by providing various legal services and information on how to avoid further damages. Philippe Weisz, Managing Attorney at HIAS, also notices that there are very limited resources for victims and hopes that there will be more legal assistance for scammed immigrants.
“It needs to be a public effort to help people against notario fraud,” siad Weisz. “It should be taken to community groups and schools, a lot of places.”
To many victims, the risk of being reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement is much greater than being compensated or rebuilding their lives after the fraud.
“The notaries provide fraudulent services that can cost thousands of dollars to the victims,” said Councilman O’Brien. “But [reporting the scam] can potentially get in the way of a person’s pathway to citizenship.”
Councilman O’Brien hopes for a stronger bond between law enforcement and the immigrant communities so that victims can obtain the help they need, as well as the undivided trust and attention of the police department.
“These individuals should know that they can come forward and that they can trust law enforcement and other agencies,” said O’Brien.
While the community groups continue their initiatives in helping out victims, O’Brien and his staff hope that the Notario Fraud Bill will be passed. The bill, if passed, will allow the City of Philadelphia to regulate legal assistance to immigrants, and thus the unlawful notaries will be more vulnerable.
Clear communication between the police and immigrant victims can also provide people with a broader understanding of notario frauds and how to avoid getting caught in the scams, since closing down the offices provides a more difficult feat for the community.
“We can try to fix everything from another direction,” said Weisz. “It’s a lot of detective work to find out what exactly happens, but helping the community understand these notarios may make [the notarios’] jobs harder on their end. There is some hope.”
— Text, video and images by Jennifer Nguyen.