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On a recent Monday morning at around 8:30 a.m., a rapidly expanding queue of people snaked out the door of Ayuda, an Adams Morgan nonprofit agency providing legal services to D.C. area immigrants. The line wound around the corner of Ontario and Columbia Roads NW before heading east for at least a full block on Columbia. In 90-plus-degree weather, older men and young mothers pushing strollers—some dressed in business attire, others in jeans and T-shirts—waited for Ayuda’s doors to open. A few commuters passing the scene stopped to ask if something was being given away.
It was. The prize that day wasn’t money or even concert tickets, but free legal advice for Latin American immigrants seeking to become permanent U.S. residents. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans fled their war-ravaged countries and entered the United States illegally. Many of them—estimated between 50,000 and 100,000—settled in the D.C. metropolitan area and have lived in a kind of legal limbo ever since.
A few weeks ago, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) announced a streamlined application procedure under NACARA, the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act, that will allow many of these immigrants to become legal residents—and, eventually, U.S. citizens. Qualified applicants with money have contacted immigration attorneys to navigate the technicalities of the law and to help them fill out INS forms properly. Others have to rely on the help of nonprofits like Ayuda or the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), which also provides legal assistance. But some others are leaning on a surprising source: notary publics.
Take A&E Accounting Services, for example: Located in a second-floor space overlooking the busy intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW, the company touts its expertise as a tax preparer and notary public primarily to the neighborhood’s native Spanish speakers. And although A&E’s services do not include bar-accredited lawyers, the company, for a fee, also fills out INS paperwork such as work-authorization forms and political asylum applications.
“If [you] don’t have a problem, then you don’t need an attorney,” explains an A&E representative filling out paperwork for a client on a weekday afternoon. “We know how to do it.”
Anya Sykes isn’t so sure. An immigration attorney for Ayuda, Sykes has received quite a few visits from former clients of other local notaries in the past. In many cases, Sykes says, the applicants were facing deportation because the notaries to whom they’d gone for help had filed immigration papers improperly—or failed to note that their clients had no INS case to begin with.
In one case, Sykes notes, she had to tell a mother to return to Guatemala and leave her young child, a U.S. citizen, behind. The woman had originally sought the help of a notary public, who filed an application for political asylum with the INS even though the woman was not eligible. INS authorities recognized that fact and immediately started deportation proceedings.
“As much as we try, we won’t be able to accommodate everyone,” says Sykes of the boom in business because of NACARA. “This NACARA is going to create a good business for notaries.” The results—even more immigrants turning
for legal help to people who are ill-trained and legally unqualified to act as attorneys—will likely give Sykes a whole new series of horror stories to hear.
In Latin American countries like El Salvador, notarios or notarios publicos—often translated into English as “notary publics”—are licensed attorneys who apprentice in notaryship law and procedure. Upon passing a national notary examination, notarios receive a government appointment to serve specific geographic regions, where they are authorized to prepare real estate contracts, incorporate businesses, and prepare and execute wills, as well as witness and certify other legal documents. Notarios, as lawyers, also dispense advice on immigration matters.
Latin immigrants to the United States often assume that notary publics here have the same professional pedigree, according to Saul Solorzano, executive director of CARECEN. But the qualifications for becoming a notary public in the District of Columbia, for example, require far fewer sleepless nights of studying: Applicants need only be 18 years of age, conduct business in the city, and pass an oral exam on the powers of a notary public.
And it doesn’t exactly take a prep course from Stanley Kaplan to understand those powers: Notaries pretty much witness signatures on
documents, certify signers’ identities, and
But some notary publics who set up shop in Latino neighborhoods such as Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant seem to be taking advantage of the cultural disconnect by advertising their services as immigration consultants.
“A lawyer would analyze the case, figure out the real possibilities of winning and your risk of being deported,” says Jose Pertierra, an immigration attorney who practices in the District. “In cases I’ve seen, notaries are very quick to tell people to apply….We’re really concerned about this, because if you apply for NACARA and don’t qualify, you risk deportation.”
According to the National Notary Association Web site, INS regulations strictly prohibit notaries who are not lawyers from offering advice on immigration matters. Rosslyn Brown, chief of the D.C. Notary Commission, says she has not received any complaints about D.C. notaries completing immigration work.
“Immigration law is so complicated, especially with issues involving political asylum,” notes Sykes. Even attorneys who specialize in immigration have a hard time keeping track of changing regulations and procedures. Notaries—who
lack the benefit of bar association seminars on legal changes, not to mention the training to understand arcane legislation—are even less
likely to keep up.
For instance, Sykes explains, until 1995 the INS automatically granted work authorization to applicants seeking political asylum. Immigrants who knew they had frivolous cases applied for asylum simply to receive the work authorization. But because of a 1995 amendment, work authorization is no longer automatically granted. And applicants who file fraudulent applications can now wind up in deportation proceedings. Over the past four years, dozens of immigrants whose notaries advised them to fraudulently request asylum in order to get work authorization have landed in Sykes’ office at Ayuda looking for help.
“I often ask, ‘Why did you apply [for political asylum]? You have no case,’” Sykes says of those who come to Ayuda facing deportation. The reply? Permiso de trabajo—work authorization.
Sykes only has to look down the block from Ayuda’s offices to find some notable notaries. Guatemala House, a small shop near the corner of Columbia Road and 18th Street NW, sells Guatemalan rugs, clothing, and other trinkets popular with fanny-pack-and-Birkenstock-wearers. Next to its jewelry display case is a metal desk where the store’s notary public sits. “Casa Guatemala for several years kept filing applications for people who had nothing to say [in a political asylum application], telling them they would get work authorization,” notes Sykes.
When asked one weekday morning whether the notary fills out immigration paperwork, the clerk on duty answers affirmatively. He says to return in the afternoon, when the notary will be on duty. The notary later denies filling out INS paperwork.
Editorial El Mundo, a magazine and card shop across the street from Guatemala House, advertises itself on a street sign as a notario publico. The back wall of Editorial El Mundo has a poster of a tropical beach scene. Underneath the poster are two metal desks, one with a sign identifying N&C Speedy Tax Service.
Sykes, who has no specific experience with N&C, says that some notaries can also give faulty tax advice—which lands their immigrant clients in trouble with the INS as well as the IRS. For instance, she says, notaries often wrongly advise people to claim children who live abroad and are not U.S. citizens as dependents on their tax forms. But in order to qualify for legal residency under NACARA, applicants have to prove, among other traits, “good moral character.” Cheating on taxes—even as a result of faulty advice from a notary—has a way of slowing down if not permanently halting the immigration process.
Those who get faulty advice often end up at U.S. Immigration Court in Arlington. In one case heard recently, Judge Joan V. Churchill held up an application for permanent U.S. residency because the applicant had falsely claimed a child who lived in Guatemala as a dependent on his taxes last year. “Have you consulted with a tax adviser?” Churchill asked the man.
He consulted with someone in the community, the applicant responded.
“Well, I don’t think you can do that. You need to speak to an attorney,” Churchill advised.
Immigrant advocates say the scenario is quite common. “Notaries treat these like easy cases, but there’s a lot more to it,” says Pertierra. “It’s not that they are thieves. They are just in way over their heads.”
Sykes adds that immigrants with difficult cases often go to notaries as a last resort. “They won’t go to private attorneys because it costs more money,” says Sykes. “And sometimes they won’t take no for an answer. We say, ‘You don’t have a case.’ But the notary would say, ‘Yes, I can file that for you.’”
“Do you fill out immigration papers?” I ask one Mount Pleasant notary public, who also advertises as a tax consultant.
She hesitates for a moment. “I only fill them out for friends—why, are you a lawyer?” she responds.
“I don’t fill out forms because I’m unfamiliar with the new laws,” she adds. “I don’t want to do a bad job.”
Other notaries are less conscientious. “I go insane. Sometimes I can’t help the person because it’s too late,” says Sykes. “I call up [the notary] and scream at them on the phone. I say, ‘Are you an attorney? You are engaged in unauthorized practice of law. You are hurting your own people. How can you be doing this?’” CP