After President Obama spared young undocumented immigrants from deportation in 2012, Elvira, a 25-year-old Mexican immigrant in Charleston, South Carolina, thought she might be eligible. So she turned to a so-called "notaria," a woman who helped immigrants in Charleston file paperwork with the government.
Elvira had arrived in the U.S. a year too late to qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the program that would have shielded her from deportation and allowed her to get a work permit. But the notaria didn't tell her this. She also didn't tell Elvira that she wasn't a lawyer, as required by South Carolina law.
"She told me, 'I'm going to get you papers,'" said Elvira, who asked to be identified only by her first name because she remains undocumented and fears retaliation. Elvira paid the notaria $200 for her services, plus the $465 application fee — money she will never see again.
Immigrant advocates around the country are bracing for a surge in these types of scams, commonly called notario fraud. Obama is expected to announce executive actions preventing the deportation of millions of undocumented people on Thursday.
"Historically, every time there's been a big immigration announcement, immediately in a lot of ethnic communities we see shops spring up with signs offering these services," said Shiu-Ming Cheer, an immigration attorney with the National Immigration Law Center.
These scams have long been a scourge in immigrant enclaves, where notarios frequently target people within their own communities. Under U.S. law, only immigration attorneys and a small number of accredited organizations are legally allowed to assist immigrants seeking status. But scammers exploit the fact that, in many Latin American countries, the title "notario," unlike an American notary public, refers to an office with comparatively broad legal authority.
Notarios charge immigrants hefty fees for applications that are filled out incorrectly or with deliberately false information. Another frequent scam involves charging immigrants to submit applications for programs they aren't eligible for. In the worst cases, an incorrect or fraudulent claim filed by a notario can lead to a deportation order against an unwitting immigrant because immigration authorities have the discretion to place unqualified applicants in deportation proceedings.
Lawyers and advocates around the country are preparing to expand their public education campaigns warning undocumented immigrants not to seek assistance from anyone other than a lawyer or an accredited nonprofit.
"A ton of the initial work that we're going to be doing is getting the word out there, so people get the right information," said Daniel Coates, lead organizer for Make the Road New York. Coates' group is also preparing aggressive screening measures for immigrants in New York seeking to apply for administration programs.
"What you're dangling on the other end of it is a work permit, so people will pay, and they're willing to hold out hope," Coates said. "We want to be able to tell people that they don't qualify as quickly as possible, and we want to be definitive."
All of Elvira's plans were dashed by the notario scam. Elvira's father was deported while he was sick with cancer when she was 18 years old. She recalled hiding in her room when federal agents raided her house. He died within a few years of returning to Mexico.
"Imagine all the hope you feel," Elvira said in Spanish. "I thought that I would have a better life here."
With legal status and a work permit, Elvira said, she hoped she would be able to provide for her younger sister, a U.S. citizen who is now in college, and for her widowed mother. "She's alone now," Elvira said. "She can't really work."
Advocates say there is another aspect endemic to notario fraud: Scammers often develop strong connections within an ethnic enclave, which makes victims reluctant to come forward or file formal complaints. And because even unscrupulous notarios get some applications right, they can develop decent reputations by word of mouth. "People will call our assistants" to report scams, said Tammy Besherse, an immigration lawyer with South Carolina Appleseed. "But they're not willing to actually turn the notario in."
Immigrants, meanwhile, are left hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars poorer, with only their dashed expectations to show for it.
The notarios are "swarming like wasps," said Laura Cahue, a community organizer at South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. "The program hasn't even been announced yet, and already they are thinking about how they're going to suck the blood out of people."
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