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When Salvadoran immigrant Irma Yolanda Membreno-Aleman wanted to apply for temporary asylum, she did what she would have done for any legal matter back home: She went to see a "notario publico."
It was a lost-in-translation mistake that cost her thousands of dollars, a rejection of her petition and loss of her work authorization and her job, a lawsuit claims.
In much of Latin America, most notary publics are also lawyers. In the United States, a notary public is not a lawyer and cannot give legal advice; he can administer oaths and witness signatures, and that's it.
The difference has allowed scam artists to prey on immigrants with limited English skills and little understanding of the American legal system by misrepresenting themselves as lawyers, immigration lawyers say.
It is a growing problem. But prosecutors rarely bring cases against these scam artists, in part because the victims are often in this country illegally and are afraid to come forward.
Randall Caudle, a San Francisco immigration attorney and past chair of the Santa Clara Valley chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the problem here is not as bad as some other immigrant hotspots. But"there's enough of them that they cause a lot of problems," he said.
Often, Caudle said, notaries will file paperwork they aren't supposed to, like an asylum application. Or they may not follow up on paperwork they have filed properly, causing their client to miss hearings they were supposed to attend.
By the time they contact an attorney for help, it's often too late, Caudle said, because they are already in deportation proceedings.
Charles Kuck, vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said there have been tens of thousands of cases in which notaries passed themselves off as lawyers.
And the problem affects more than just the immigrants who are scammed. Fraudulent and incorrect documents filed by notaries add up to "an unbelievable waste of taxpayer money," Kuck said.
Ceja Enterprises Inc. in Nashville advertises itself in Spanish as an office that provides legal aid, including help with immigration papers. But Carmen Ceja is only a notary public and her business card refers to her as a "notaria publica."
Nashville lawyer Sean Lewis, who is suing Ceja on behalf of Membreno, said many notaries advertise services they are unqualified to perform, such as tax preparation and divorce. (Membreno has since gotten her case reopened, and is living in this country under temporary protective status granted in cases of civil war and natural disasters back home.)
Rudi Gonzalez, a Mexican living in Nashville who also is part of the lawsuit against Ceja, went to her office for help preparing a contract for a $3,000 loan he wanted to make.
"I saw her signs and newspaper advertisements and friends said to go to her because she could draw up a letter for me, like a lawyer, and take responsibility if I didn't get paid back," Gonzalez said.
Instead, what he got was a poorly worded letter in English that didn't mention interest on the loan, he said. When the borrower defaulted, Gonzalez ended up paying more than $5,000 to Ceja and her associates to try to get his money back, the lawsuit claims. But he has not seen a penny from the borrower.
Ceja's attorney, Geoffrey Coston, said the people who messed up Gonzalez's claim are not associated with Ceja and she cannot be held responsible for their actions.
Ceja's office offers "just an interpretation service," Coston said. The office employees simply fill out forms based on what clients tell them and offer no advice, he said.
He said the sign outside her office advertising legal aid was "a bad sign" that needed to change. But he said he did not believe her business card was confusing to most people.
"Most people go to her knowing she's not an attorney," he said. "They go because they can't afford an attorney."
In Georgia, the Colombian wife of state Sen. Curt Thompson was almost deported recently after her dealings with a notary whom she said she believed was an attorney. The wife, Sascha Herrera, came to the U.S. on a visitor visa in 2003. She applied for an extension through a "notario," Tomas Vilela, but she said he filed an asylum application without her knowledge.
Because Herrera was unaware of the application, she missed repeated asylum hearings and the court issued an order for her deportation. She went into hiding briefly until a judge agreed last month to drop the deportation action.
Vilela's attorney, Robert Coheleach, said only that his client did nothing wrong.
Kuck said any federal immigration reform that offers some type of amnesty to illegal immigrants will make the problem worse if action is not first taken against "notarios" who prey on immigrants. Otherwise, notarios are "going to be falling from the trees trying to rip people off."
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' San Francisco spokeswoman, Sharon Rummery, said the agency has legal information and forms on its Web site, http://www.uscis.gov, though she said much of the site is only in English. She said anyone with questions can also call the agency's toll-free number at (800) 375-5283 for help in English and Spanish.
And she offered other advice for those seeking help through the immigration process.
"We always tell people, if it sounds too good to be true, it is," Rummery said. "There are so many community groups that will help you for a nominal fee."
The Associated Press and staff writer Michele R. Marcucci contributed to this report.