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When Mexican immigrant Blanca Arellano married an American, Scott Moran of Cary, Ill., four years ago, she figured getting permanent residency would be a routine matter. To make sure the process went smoothly, the couple hired an Illinois lawyer to handle the paperwork. But, after pocketing his $1,250 fee, the lawyer allegedly didn't file Blanca's application. After discovering they had been led astray, it took the Morans until last year—and required the help of a congressman—to get the paperwork through the system and win Blanca's residency rights.
Nationally, thousands of immigrants fall victim to crooked or incompetent lawyers or to people posing as lawyers, advocacy groups say. The attorneys either mishandle their applications or simply take their money and never bother filing the required documents. And the fake lawyers—many calling themselves "notarios," a term that refers to a specialized lawyer in Latin American countries but has no comparable equivalent in the U.S.—similarly take their cash and fail to deliver. "Thousands or tens of thousands of immigrants are affected," says Juan Vega, executive director at the Centro Latino de Chelsea in Chelsea, Mass., a nonprofit organization serving the needs of the Latino and immigrant community.
AN UNDERREPORTED PROBLEM. Because many immigrants are afraid to come forward with their stories, it's not clear just how big the problem is. Nationally, only 46 lawyers were disciplined in these types of cases last year by federal authorities for infractions such as failing to show up in court, providing ineffective assistance to clients, appearing in court while under suspension, or submitting fraudulent documents. Some have been disbarred while others were suspended or censured. In the Moran case, lawyer Patrick McGreal was disbarred by the Supreme Court of Illinois in January, 2006.
For the victims, slipups by the lawyers can have grave consequences. While the Morans eventually got legal relief, one of McGreal's other clients wound up getting deported after the lawyer allegedly failed to appear in court for him, according to charges filed in the matter in October, 2005, before the hearing board of the Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission. McGreal could not be reached for comment. He no longer has an office and all of his cases have been transferred to another attorney, Scott Bellgrau, who says he doesn't know McGreal's whereabouts.
HAPHAZARD REGULATION. As for the notarios, they continue to advertise freely in cities popular among Hispanic immigrants, from Los Angeles to South Bend, Ind. Officials of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., a trade group for attorneys, say tens of thousands of such notarios do business across the country. These notarios play on the translation of "notario publico." In Latin America, it refers to highly trained legal experts, but in the U.S., notary publics cannot give legal advice; they can only administer oaths and witness signatures.
About half the states so far have moved to regulate notarios, with some making it illegal for notary publics to advertise in both English and Spanish without disclosing that they are not licensed attorneys and cannot accept fees for legal advice.
Some advocates fear that the recent failure of the immigration reform bill will worsen the problem. Lacking a clear new set of rules to follow, even more immigrants could turn to unscrupulous advisers for help. "We don't have the resources to be on the airwaves everyday telling people whatever we have to tell them about immigration services," says Rogelio Nuñez, executive director of Casa de Proyecto Libertad, an immigrant rights group in the border town of Harlingen, Tex. The problem could be exacerbated with the coming increase in fees for immigration-related applications, effective July 30, driving immigrants to rush their applications. "That's going to be another opportunity for people to be taken advantage of," says Vega.
SUPPORT FROM LEGITIMATE SOURCES. Government agencies and advocacy groups alike have been laboring to attack the problem. State authorities punish or disbar troublesome lawyers. The American Bar Assn. Commission on Immigration warns on its Web site of the increasing problem of notario fraud and offers advice on legal aid in both English and Spanish. Advocacy groups such as the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago hold weekly workshops to teach immigrants how to navigate the immigration system and avoid scamsters.
Yet, even with all the efforts by the government and advocacy groups, the immigration process remains a labyrinth for many whose legal aid turned sour, especially victims reluctant to notify authorities for fear of deportation. For the Morans it was all too much: "It was all supposed to be calculated and calm, not a hyped-up agitated ordeal," says Scott Moran. "The immigration system stinks." By Chi-an Chang