When Rafael Tobias Giron went to renew his immigration papers, he didn’t think he would be scammed by a notario and imprisoned.
The word “notario” is a tricky one in LA. In Spanish, it refers to a notary public. But it also refers to people who pose as immigration consultants – scammers who exploit vulnerable people for money.
Giron came to the U.S. from El Salvador seeking asylum in 1999. He received temporary protected status or TPS which is a designation for asylum seekers.
“We came to this country to look for a better future,” said Giron.
Giron works as a gardener in northeast LA to support his family. He has four kids, all who were born in the U.S. Every two years, Giron has to renew his TPS status, so he went to a man who claimed he could help him.
“My TPS wasn’t updated. I was having problems with my stay. [The notario] set up an appointment for me,” he said. “I went and I filled in my paperwork, but the lawyer I had for papers wasn’t a lawyer. He was a lawyer’s assistant, I think.”
He paid several hundred dollars to this supposed assistant to make sure he could stay in the country without any legal problems. But instead, the opposite happened.
“That’s when ICE told me to show up. But then I didn’t understand why they didn’t believe me that I had renewed my permission,” he said. “I have the receipt that I renewed my migration papers and that I had paid the lawyer. ICE didn’t believe me.”
As a result, Giron spent a month and ten days at Adelanto detention center near Victorville. His story isn’t unusual. In fact, it’s becoming more common.
According to the LA county Office of Consumer and Business affairs, about 80 complaints were filed against fraudulent immigration consultants or “notarios” in 2014. In 2018, there were 260 complaints, more than three times as many as four years ago.
Beth Baker is an anthropology professor at California State University LA who has worked with asylum seekers that have been exploited by notarios.
“What happens is that notarios will understand what needs to be said to ICE to get papers or at least to begin a process of legalization and so they’ll lie on behalf of their clients when their clients don’t even know that they’re being lied about,” said Baker.
By the time government agencies find out about the lies, it’s often too late for the victim to apply for legal status.
Now the LA County Board of Supervisors is moving to stop notarios from doing any more damage.
The board recently approved a motion with a number of provisions to protect the immigrant community from fraud, including community education, supporting legitimate immigration attorneys, and pushing for legislation at the state level.
County Supervisor Hilda Solis authored the motion. She says notarios have been a problem for years.
“It’s plagued a lot of immigrant communities, not just Latinos, Spanish speakers, but also the API community, Asian Pacific, and other immigrants,” said Solis.
Solis says many go as far as spending their entire savings on notarios, only to end up in worse circumstances than they were in before.
“It’s high time we begin to do something to let the public know that this is not acceptable. It is a crime,” said Solis.
Back at the Giron household, Rafael is still dealing with the aftermath of his own run-in with a notario.
Once his family found a legitimate lawyer, they were able to get friends to write letters to the immigration judge. He was eventually released from the detention center. However, the damage was already done.
“It has affected us a lot. It’s still affecting me. Because here I’ve still got my GPS ankle monitor, said Giron, adding that his kids ask him, "when they’re going to take it off and if they’re going to take me away again.”
If you or someone you know is a potential victim of immigrant service fraud, you can reach out to the LA county Office of Consumer and Business affairs at (800) 593-8222.