Lost in Translation

Notarios are presenting themselves as something they’re not. And it’s costing local families thousands.

More than a year ago, Manuel Ruiz went to a notario to file immigration papers to bring his parents to the United States. He paid $800 and waited for word on what he should do next. Unfortunately, that word never came. Finally, Ruiz’s wife looked into the process, only to find there were no records of his paperwork at the immigration offices. With this discovery, he went back to the office to speak with the notario who had filed his paperwork. “After all,” he says, “she was an attorney, and I knew she would correct it.”

But she wasn’t. And she wouldn’t.

Across the nation, Spanish-speaking immigrants have similar tales of abused trust. The problem lies in a single word. In Mexico, a notario is an attorney, complete with a law degree and special notario certification. In the U.S., though, the people advertising themselves as notarios are qualified only as notaries public—they’re authorized to notarize legal documents, not to practice law. This can confuse a newly arrived immigrant, and several notary publics have found a way to use the confusion for profit. Many legal professionals will tell you that going to a notario to file immigration or other important legal paperwork is like going to a veterinarian to have your gall bladder removed.

“The definitions between here and Mexico are completely contrary, like land and sea, and they use that to prey on a very vulnerable community,” says Mariano Lemus Gas, the Mexican consul in Las Vegas. “Even worse, the ones doing it are our own people.” There are only about 150 registered notarios in Mexico City, one of the most populated cities in the world, with more than 20 million in the metropolitan area. In the Las Vegas Valley alone, Lemus Gas says, there are more than 1,000 registered notaries public—and at least 200 operating in the Hispanic community.

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In a two-mile stretch of Eastern Avenue between Charleston and Oakey, at least six businesses offer notary public services with signs on the door that read Taxes, Immigration, Divorces, Vehicle Registration, etc. Here, in the heart of a heavily Hispanic neighborhood, notarios have made themselves at home. Such businesses, with their laundry lists of services, have long had a reputation as fraudulent operations that prey on the ignorance and desperation of the immigrant community. If you Google the words “notario publico,” the first links to pop up are websites about notario fraud.

Peter Ashman, a Las Vegas immigration attorney and member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, has seen notario fraud for many years. “I’ve seen way too many cases of someone who spent hundreds of dollars with a notario and later they come to find out that their papers are not really in process,” he says.

Notaries can notarize documents and help fill them out, but they cannot give legal advice. In extreme cases, Ashman has seen notarios promise a faster path to citizenship and then advise clients to go back to Mexico to wait a few months. Those “few months” often turn out to be 10 years.

Recently, news of notario fraud has been making its way into other areas, specifically loan modifications, bankruptcies and foreclosures. It has been one of the most common complaints to the Nevada Fight Fraud Task Force, says chairwoman Elisabeth Daniels. “We really started seeing it in 2009,” she says. “When all of the foreclosures started happening, a lot of our attorneys and other officials in the community were hearing about this more and more.” Cases involving notarios are common in bankruptcy courts, says Tara Newberry, an attorney and mediator for the task force. “We see a debtor come in and present documents to the court that they didn’t fill out themselves, and you can tell it’s the work of a notario.” But often the case is dismissed, and plaintiffs are unable to file again. “It’s serious fraud. They can put these people in serious financial hardship.”

The DMV has also seen a surge of notario fraud. People often come in with fake titles or vehicle registrations, thinking that they are legitimate, Daniels says. But the task force has no way to track notarios, since they can file under different names, even as consultants. “We can go after them for doing unlicensed activity,” Daniels says. “But the victims have to speak up first, and sometimes that is a community that doesn’t file complaints.” It’s also difficult to get the Hispanic community to use legitimate legal services, since there are language and cultural barriers. And notarios form part of what Daniels calls an “affinity club” that the community trusts.

In 2005, an Assembly bill passed prohibiting businesses from using the words “notario publico” to advertise their services. Now the windows of most notarios use the English term “notary public,” part of a long Spanglish list of offerings. Meanwhile, both the task force and the consulate have tried to educate the community about the risks of notarios, but business continues to boom. For one thing, notarios are cheaper than attorneys; for another, many people in the community are leery of filing a complaint with government officials. And then there are the stories of notarios actually doing what they promised to do—the kind of word-of-mouth that keeps people taking their chances, believing the horror story will never happen to them.

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When Manuel Ruiz returned to his notario, she said she had filed the forms. Then she dismissed him from the office. Ruiz, a Mexican immigrant who is legally blind, knows he was an easy target. But he assumed that he was safe working with a professional. “I felt angry and betrayed,” he says. “Now I’m paying an attorney again for the same paperwork.”

Mesquite resident Alex Corral tells a similar story about his niece, who lost $8,000 dealing with a notario. “She trusted this person, and there is nothing we can do,” he says. “We can’t report her to the bar, because she is not an attorney. Our hands are tied, and we just have to cut our losses.” He wishes his niece had made a smarter choice. After all, she has an aunt who was promised a visa in six months and paid a Nevada notario for the paperwork. Twenty years later, she is still waiting in Mexico.

“It’s not fair,” Corral says. “The immigrant community doesn’t make huge salaries. We are hard workers, and whether we’re out a couple hundred dollars or thousands, it sets a family way back.”