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Serving Immigrants The Right Way: What Notaries Should Know

Serving Immigrants The Right Way: What Notaries Should Know

(Originally published in the June 2017 issue of The National Notary magazine.)

Immigration has become one of the hottest topics in America. As it often does, any discussion of a change in immigration policy causes an untold number of foreign-born residents to seek help — and they often turn to Notaries.

Typically, immigrants are unfamiliar with our government bureaucracy and wary of strangers, so they are much more likely to ask people in their community they know for help. It’s often a natural step to turn to the local Notary who handled their child’s school permission slip or loan documents to help with their residency status.

But wading into the area of immigration assistance is fraught with pitfalls — from the complexity of the law to the limits on what help Notaries can provide to the restrictions on how they can offer their services. Still, many Notaries sincerely try to provide legitimate immigration assistance. And there are ways that they can do this.

Understanding Your Role And The Needs Of Immigrants
 

Navigating immigration rules can be like finding your way through a maze in the dark. So exactly what can Notaries who are not attorneys or otherwise accredited by the federal authorities do to help immigrants?

Under federal rules, your help is limited to assisting immigrants in completing blank spaces on printed forms for a nominal fee. But you cannot hold yourself out as qualified in legal matters or immigration procedures.

Fourteen states, including California and New York, specifically permit people who are not attorneys or accredited by the federal government to provide limited services. Apart from helping people complete immigration forms without offering legal advice, they typically may:

  • Translate a person’s answers on immigration forms
  • Assist in securing supporting documents such as birth certificates or other vital records
  • Make referrals to attorneys who could provide legal representation in an immigration matter

This last point is crucial. Immigrants inevitably ask for advice, including what forms to use and how they should answer questions on the forms. Many immigrants may even believe that you can answer their questions because in much of Latin America and Europe, Notaries are highly trained legal professionals akin to attorneys. For U.S. Notaries, answering those questions or giving any kind of legal advice would constitute the unauthorized practice of law, and law enforcement agencies often go after people who often commit so-called Notario abuse.

The best way to deal with the questions is to refer the immigrant to a qualified person or group.

Getting Immigrants The Right Help
 

USCIS identifies two categories of immigration service providers who can give legal advice, explain options and communicate directly with federal authorities about an immigrant’s case:

  • Licensed attorneys in good standing
  • Representatives accredited by the Department of Justice (DOJ)’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) and employed by EOIR-recognized organizations

Notaries who serve immigrant communities can develop relationships with local attorneys. That way, Notaries can refer clients who need legal assistance to an attorney they know. In addition, the 14,000-member American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) has an easy-to-use “Find an Immigration Lawyer” service available to the public.

The federal government does not provide free legal representation to immigrants. However, EOIR operates its Recognition and Accreditation Program to provide low-cost representation for immigrants. Under the program, federal authorities approve non-profit, tax-exempt organizations — such as immigrant rights organizations, religious and community groups and legal aid organizations — to practice immigration law. The employees or volunteers of the organization who represent immigrants are called accredited representatives.

Accredited representatives are individually approved by the federal government after demonstrating that they have broad knowledge and experience in immigration law, usually working with attorneys. Currently, there are about 1,800 accredited representatives. The EOIR maintains lists of recognized organizations and accredited representatives, which are updated on a regular basis.

Assisting Immigrants
 

While the services you can provide immigrants may seem limited, there is plenty of opportunity for nonattorneys to help. And many Notaries who work with immigrant communities are considering the idea of offering immigration assistance.

“Only a very small percentage of (cases) require the involvement of legal counsel,” said Teresa Foster, who runs an immigration consultant business in Napa, California. “The fact is that many people simply feel uncomfortable trying to fill out their own paperwork.”

Foster, herself an immigrant from Mexico, took over a consulting business in 1990 from a woman who was retiring. Since then, Foster’s office has assisted clients with roughly 10,000 forms and applications. As mentioned above, 14 states specifically permit nonattorneys to offer limited assistance to immigrants. A half-dozen states, including California, New York and Illinois, require surety bonds.

Four states — Oregon, Colorado, Tennessee and North Carolina — either restrict or ban nonattorneys from providing immigration services. One thing no state requires is education, yet on-going training is crucial, says Foster. “You have to always look for changes,” she said. “The forms change pretty frequently. You have to be on top of everything.”

During all her time as an immigration consultant, Foster has sought out regular education. She relies heavily on webinars from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and regular email updates from USCIS. She also has developed a network of local immigration attorneys who advise her and take referrals.

“It’s so important to get educated so you can be a better resource for your community,” she said. Apart from changes at the federal level, many states have laws regulating how Notaries or individuals offering immigration services can advertise. Many laws place restrictions on the use of the term Notario Publico or require disclaimers that the Notary is not an attorney.

In California, a Notary cannot advertise both as a Notary and an immigration consultant. Luis Salazar, who runs a tax preparation business in Hollywood, California, and is also a Notary, does not advertise that he is an immigration consultant. His main income comes from tax preparation, but he started helping with immigration forms because “customers kept asking me to do it.” He sees it as a way he can do more to help his customers.

Conversely, Foster is careful not to advertise that she is a Notary. Her bread and butter business is as an immigration consultant. Both get most of their immigration clients through word of mouth. “Customers are looking for somebody they already know and trust,” Salazar says.

The fact that both Salazar and Foster have gone through the immigrant experience is something they can share with clients, and also helps earn their trust. While providing immigration services can be a good business, it’s also about more than business.

“This is where my passion goes,” Foster said. She recalled the time a client brought his five daughters into the office. He had been apart from his family for years while getting established in the U.S., and Foster helped with the forms that reunited them. “They were dressed in their Sunday best, and he said to his daughters, ‘This is the woman who brought you here.’”

Michael Lewis is Managing Editor of member publications for the National Notary Association.

A Guide To State Immigration Consultant Rules

States that Allow Non-Attorney Immigration Assistance Providers

Arizona                       Minnesota

California                    Nevada

Georgia                      New York

Illinois                        Oklahoma

Maryland                    South Carolina

Maine                         Utah

Michigan                     Washington

States that Restrict or Ban Non-Attorney Immigration Assistance Providers

Oregon                       Tennessee

Colorado                     North Carolina

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6 Comments

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jgalfatravelservice@gmail.com

01 Oct 2017

Hi, I am in Texas and it's really hard to find any information in regards providing immigration assistance filling out forms, translation any clear answer to this here in texas?

National Notary Association

05 Oct 2017

Hello. Please see this article for more information regarding Texas rules for Notaries offering immigration-related services: https://www.nationalnotary.org/notary-bulletin/blog/2015/10/state-laws-notaries-immigration

Olga Marquez

24 Jan 2018

I noticed all your articles leave out the State of Missouri. Can you be a Specialist in Missouri?

Linda

22 May 2018

I would think a language barrier would be a problem.

Chenille

25 Sep 2018

Can a Notary from Florida become Immigration Forms Specialist?

National Notary Association

25 Sep 2018

hello. We are not aware of any restrictions in your state. Florida does not have laws or rules that specifically authorize, or specifically prohibit, non-legal immigration services such as immigration forms help. Please see here for a list of states that have rules and restrictions: https://www.nationalnotary.org/immigration/knowledge-center/state-immigration-consulting-rules For more FAQs, please visit: https://www.nationalnotary.org/immigration/knowledge-center/immigration-forms-specialist-faq

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