By Stefanie Guizar Diaz, B.A. Class of 2022
One of my most treasured childhood memories is standing tall in a government building with my right hand over my heart, repeating the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance of the United States of America. At the time, I prided myself on my lighthearted spirit. But even at eleven years old, somehow, I knew that the gravity of this moment was much more than anything I had ever experienced. At twenty-two, I still look back at that moment, standing next to my parents and pledging my allegiance to the United States of America. But now, I think of the millions of families who would sacrifice and have sacrificed everything to be where I stood. Eleven years ago, I was unaware of the immigration crisis and the countless injustices that immigrant families encounter when continuing their journey of obtaining legal status in the United States.
Since working at the William & Mary Law School Immigration Clinic, I have learned of injustice after injustice happening to immigrant families who struggle to have a voice in this country without the proper documentation. To make matters worse, undocumented immigrants are expected to navigate an arduous immigration process alone. Many choose to seek legal help, but this can also be an obstacle, especially for limited English proficient immigrants without family connections or trusted individuals around to help. When reaching out for assistance, many have fallen victim to an uncharted type of crime: Notario fraud.
A notario is an individual who misrepresents themselves as a qualified representative to provide immigration services or legal advice concerning the immigration process. They do not have the qualifications to properly help immigrants and purposely mislead immigrants for their personal financial gain. They capitalize on a misconception that notario publicos have the same qualifications in the United States as they commonly do in Latin American countries. In Latin America, a notary is someone who has a legal education, is qualified to represent others, and can provide legal advice. The foreign version of a notary creates an opportunity for American notarios to capitalize on this misunderstanding and advertise as someone who can do more than witness the signature of forms.
The gravity of this crime comes from the victimization of an already vulnerable population and the negative consequences that incorrect paperwork can bring. Those affected by notarios are also less likely to report them to authorities because of deportation fears.
The Federal Government, State Bar Associations, and nonprofit organizations are providing outlets to help victims and attorneys report notario fraud and are increasingly becoming aware of their occurrences. The Federal Trade Commission has a link to report notario fraud. Although they do not investigate individual circumstances, the reports are submitted to a database to help track patterns that create an investigatory process. After uncovering a pattern of immigrant consultant fraud, the Virginia State Bar Association has created an educational campaign to raise awareness, which includes brochures in English, Spanish, Korean, and Vietnamese. There are also helpful links to Virginia Lawyer Referral Services to help defend against notario fraud claims. Additionally, the nonprofit organization Ayuda has created Project END to raise awareness of notario fraud and help those who have been affected in DC, Maryland, and northern Virginia.
Working in the William & Mary Immigration Clinic has opened my eyes to a new side of the legal field and one that hits close to home. With every case I learn about, I look back at my eleven-year-old self and realize how lucky she was. That cherished memory of taking the naturalization oath with my family becomes more important, and it fuels my intentions for helping others take steps towards acquiring that memory for themselves.