Swindling Immigrants

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  7/05/2003

After paying the "law office" of Price-Price & Associates $1,200, Jaime Cardona expected help navigating the bureaucratic path to citizenship. Instead, he says, the firm improperly filed his application for asylum, then it vanished, and next week immigration officials expect the 41-year-old father of three to return to Guatemala, leaving his wife and children in Allston.

"They lied to me, they stole my money, and now a judge told me I have to leave," said Cardona, a factory worker who has lived in Boston since 1993. Cardona was advised that he could qualify for permanent residency under a special asylum act for Guatemalans, though he arrived in the United States three years too late.

A year and a half ago,
Cardona learned that Price-Price wasn't qualified to provide the services they sold him. In fact, he says, they weren't even lawyers; they were notary publics, or "notarios," a title with a significantly different meaning in the United States than in Latin America. Though their powers are limited to stamping legal documents and almost anyone can be a notary in the United States - all you need in Massachusetts is $65, the rubberstamp approval of the secretary of state, and four signatures - in much of Latin America, the word "notario" connotes a lawyer, usually one of distinction.

With the region's Latino population growing, state authorities are increasingly receiving complaints about notaries using the semantic confusion to swindle immigrants, many of them poor, undocumented, and speaking no English. Worse than the theft, state officials and immigrant-rights advocates say, are the cases like Cardona's that have been botched beyond repair.

It's unclear how many of the state's 130,000 notaries have engaged in such deception. But state officials and immigration-rights advocates say they've received scores of complaints since Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly's office publicized last month the prosecution of Gaspard J. Francois, a 54-year-old East Boston resident sentenced to three years in jail for posing as an immigration lawyer and for defrauding at least five Costa Rican immigrants out of thousands of dollars.

"This seems to be a very significant problem," said John Grossman, chief of corruption, fraud, and computer crime at the attorney general's office, who is investigating suspicious notaries. "It happens too often for us to prosecute all these cases. But in cases with larceny and fraud, where victims will step forward - and many are reluctant because they aren't here legally - we will prosecute."

To prevent more cases like Cardona's, some advocates want the state to regulate notaries more closely.

Immigration lawyer Jeff Ross, who met Cardona after he learned that a judge ordered him to leave the country, has sent Governor Mitt Romney a draft of potential legislation that is similar to laws in 16 states. The proposed bill would forbid notaries who act as immigration consultants from advertising themselves as "notarios," strictly regulate what notaries can charge for their services, and create a licensing process for notaries interested in serving immigrants.

"It's like the way we regulate the insurance industry," said Ross, who is legal counsel for the Guatemalan Association of Massachusetts. "We need a law to hold people accountable when they're acting beyond the bounds of what they're legally allowed to do."

Doroteo Segura says a notary in Dorchester charged him $300 for helping him fill out a petition for permanent residency. Nothing ever came of his petition, and when the 32-year-old Guatemalan asked for a receipt to confirm that the notary filed the visa request, she brushed him off, he said.

"After about a year of not hearing anything, I asked her about my case and she said she had no idea what happened to my petition," said Segura, whose wife is a citizen.

The notary, Yolanda Reyes, keeps an office in the living room of her home on Callender Street, where a small, fading sign next to the front door advertises her company, Wide National Service. Inside, beyond a lobby that looks like a dentist's office, Reyes sits at an old desk, the walls behind her decorated with a collage of diplomas, American flags, and sample immigration forms.

When asked about the services she provides, she was reluctant to respond. "We don't just put a seal on a piece of paper; there's much more to it," she said. When asked to respond to allegations that she has improperly handled cases or charged exorbitant fees, she told a reporter to leave. "This is my life - and it's private," she said.

Recently, several of the state's immigrant-rights groups have started collecting complaints about notaries posing as lawyers, forwarding many of them to the attorney general's office. One group in Cambridge, Centro Presente, provided the names of a dozen suspicious notaries, from East Boston to Framingham.

"This is a widespread problem that will continue as long as there are undocumented people and those greedy to make a buck," said Elena Letona, executive director of Centro Presente.

One of the notaries Centro Presente has received complaints about, Letona said, has an office in the same space occupied by Price-Price & Associates, which vanished about two years ago. Over a pawnshop on East Boston's Meridian Street, where a picture of the Statue of Liberty accompanies advertising for services ranging from notarizing to filling out immigration paperwork, Servicios Pro fesionales Reyes welcomes a steady flow of immigrants, many of them former Price-Price clients.

The owner, Daisy Reyes (no relation to the Dorchester notary), insists that she has never misrepresented herself as a lawyer. What she does, she says, is help people with translations, taxes, and simple immigration forms. If a lawyer is necessary, she says, she recommends that her clients find one.

"Some notary publics lie to their clients," she said, arguing that Centro Presente has unfairly lumped her with those who break the law. "We don't do complicated cases, and that's why I continue to have many clients after 15 years in business. A new law, I think, would prevent abuse."

For Jaime Cardona, and an unknown number of immigrants like him, nothing can undo the mishandling of his case. He will give up his job at a New Balance shoe factory and leave his wife and children.

Despite a bleak future, he hopes to come back. But to do it legally, could take 10 years.

"It shouldn't have happened this way," he said. "There should be a way for me to stay."
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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