Sunday, April 20, 2008

Coyotes of the Legal System

Many have heard about the infamous border “coyotes” -- informal guides that bring immigrants illegally across the border for a fee –- yet few know about the malicious “coyote” of the legal system –- the notario publico.

In Mexico and countries in Latin America, a notario publico is a legally recognized lawyer. In the United States, "notario publico" is just a notary public -- a person that can administer oaths and be a witness for signatures. It is simply the literal translation of "notary public" into Spanish.

For a spring break reveler in Mexico with limited Spanish, adding “el” before and “o” after English words is a shortcut to at least poor Spanish as many words are similar in both languages. For the Latino immigrant who arrives at the doorstep of “el notario publico”, these similarities can be catastrophic.

Notary publics masquerading as "notarios publicos" present themselves to Spanish-speaking immigrants as immigration lawyers. They offer their alleged connections and expertise to help guide their unknowing clients in obtaining legal residence for them and their families. Of course this information has a price that is usually in the thousands, according to the Legal Services of New Jersey. But the money is not all immigrants have to lose.

According to Christina Baal of Cabrini Immigration Services, the notario publico may also file an application for legal residency for that person--even if there is no chance of obtaining it. The state creates a file on the applicant and a court date is set up.

“Sometimes the immigrants don't know what the NTA (“notice to appear”) letter means, and they show up in front of the immigration judge and end up barred from the country,” said immigration lawyer Tom Shea.

These notario publicos operate with impunity knowing that, as immigrants, the clients have little legal recourse, even if the victims are brave enough to contact the authorities.

Sometimes the fraud isn't revealed until after the client's application has been rejected.

“Many agencies won't touch them (the applicant's cases) because it is often complicated to re-open a case with a removal order,” said Shea.

Criminal notary publics in the U.S. often have their offices in latino neighborhoods where Spanish dominates the billboards and shop windows. In Texas, it is illegal to literally translate the phrase “notary public” into Spanish because of the widespread fraud resulting from the difference in definition.

“The saddest part is that the notario is usually someone who was an immigrant themselves, and they knowingly deceive people, sometimes from the same area that they come from,” said Shea. For a Latino immigrant in an unknown country without connections, a friendly, Spanish-speaking, immigration lawyer who knows the ropes can be a godsend –- or just a coyote in a lawyer's clothing.

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