The number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States dropped sharply in 2009, but the exodus has not appeared to slow down the activities of unscrupulous people passing themselves off as Notarios to take advantage of the foreign-born residents still in the U.S.
The undocumented immigrant population declined by 850,000 last year and by more than 1 million since it peaked in 2007, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). But an estimated 10.75 million unauthorized foreign residents remain in the country. And uncertainty over the economy and immigration laws leaves many of them easy prey for con artists who often call themselves Notarios to fool clients into thinking they have the legal training and privileges of the attorney-like Notaries of Latin America and other countries.
These shady Notaries victimize immigrants fearful of deportation by offering phony "legal assistance" in exchange for outrageous fees. And their actions are not concentrated solely in states with the largest immigrant populations.
The Washington Attorney General's Office recently fined three separate Notario businesses from between $4,000 and $10,000 each for giving improper legal advice and misusing the titles Notario and Notary Public. In addition, the Attorney General's Office currently is investigating more than two dozen other Notario cases and expects to bring more enforcement actions.
A New York City immigration organization did not get off so lucky. The state Attorney General's Office shut down the American Immigration Federation (AIF) and ordered it to pay $1.2 million plus restitution to thousands of clients. Among other things, authorities accused AIF of engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, charging excessive fees and misleading clients by claiming to be able to provide legal services.
To avoid potentially severe penalties, Notaries should brush up on their state's Notario requirements. Many states either require Notaries to post disclaimers that they may not provide legal advice or prohibit them from using the Spanish-language title Notario. In general, Notaries always must avoid providing unauthorized advice or preparing documents on behalf of immigrants.