Scammers in one the largest immigrant hubs in the U.S. will now face stiffer penalties for defrauding people who are seeking legal assistance with immigration matters. New York state’s Immigration Assistance Service Enforcement Act, which went into effect on Monday, establishes new protections and rights for immigrants who use the services of a “notario público,” which are generally individuals or businesses that falsely represent themselves as qualified legal advisers for new arrivals and other citizenship issues. The law makes it a felony to defraud people seeking assistance of more than $1,000.
The effort by immigration reform advocates is designed to protect immigrants from becoming victims of fraud. President Barack Obama in 2012 began taking executive action on immigration, deferring deportation actions against undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and later offering work permits to millions of other people who came into the country illegally, which caused an uptick in reported frauds against immigrants.
Notarios, which traditionally take advantage of cultural differences, are not permitted to give legal advice nor are they licensed to represent cases that are pending in immigration courts or the Department of Labor. They also may not threaten to report undocumented immigrants to authorities over complaints about bad service. In Latin American countries, “notario público” is an attorney or trusted member of the community who is authorized to give legal advice.
All 50 U.S. states and several U.S. territories have some form of protection against this costly fraud, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission won a $616,000 judgment against a Maryland couple over deceptive immigration services. The agency said it registered 891 complaints of immigration services fraud in 2013.
New York’s law is unique in that it is the only one to establish permanently the state Office of New Americans, which is “dedicated to promoting and enhancing the welfare of immigrant communities,” according to the New York Immigration Coalition. The Immigration Assistance Service Enforcement Act, for which state Sen. Rubén Díaz and Assemblyman Marcos Crespo advocated, was signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last August.