In November 2018, more than two dozen New Jersey businesses were cited for allegedly defrauding individuals by charging them for immigration services that they were not authorized to provide. As of February 2019, some of the businesses who were accused of fraud pleaded no contest and started paying penalties. However, according to the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey, they insist they’ve done nothing wrong.
Among the 28 businesses accused of fraud by the state Division of Consumer Affairs are notaries, tax preparers, travel agencies, and others. Each business received a notice of violation that accused them of charging for services that must be performed by either an attorney or by a representative accredited by the federal government.
According to New Jersey State, some of the businesses were allegedly charging people more than $1,500 for immigration services that they were not legally permitted to perform. Services allegedly rendered by the businesses include filling out immigration forms and providing legal advice.
The investigation into businesses that committed immigration service fraud is part of New Jersey’s efforts to deter “notario” fraud. Notario fraud occurs when a public notary takes advantage of Spanish-speaking individuals who believe that they are consulting with an attorney or immigration expert. Public notaries in the U.S. are not allowed to offer or perform legal services and cannot charge high fees for witnessing signatures.
According to New Jersey State officials, victims have found themselves destitute after dealing with these unlicensed immigration advisors. Some have lost irreplaceable documents, such as birth certificates and passports, to deceiving notarios. Others have faced deportation, separation from family members, financial losses, and years in lengthy administrative processes.
According to StopNotarioFraud.org, a site sponsored by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) to deter notario fraud, notarios are not lawyers and not valid accredited representatives approved by the U.S. government. They often take advantage of people from their own ethnic community. Some who attempt to provide legal services, however, are not competent and often land their clients in hot water. According to AILA, victims may have their immigration applications denied or, worse, end up in deportation proceedings. In other instances, notarios will take an individual’s money without ever intending on submitting documents or providing aid in any way.
Numerous deceptive notarios go unreported because the burden is on the victims to report the wrongdoing. However, many victims are unaware that the people they are dealing with are unlicensed immigration advisors. Others fear being reported to immigration authorities.
The division sought more than $300,000 in penalties. Individually, the accused businesses faced penalties of $6,000 to $16,000. According to authorities, in some instances, an individual associated with the business will face civil penalties as well.
According to the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey, as of February 4, 2019, at least five of the businesses have entered into consent agreements with New Jersey in exchange for reduced penalties, paying between $2,000 and $12,000 in fines.
However, not all business owners agree with the penalties. According to USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey, Consuelo Castillo, who runs Consuelo’s Travel Chain, said it was unfair that she got in trouble for filling out immigration forms for less than what lawyers charge.Ms. Castillo said that, last year, her employees filled out green card petitions, applications for Temporary Protected Status, and other immigration forms for clients whom she charged upwards of hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of dollars for these services.
During an interview with USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey, a few of Ms. Castillo’s clients said that they were unaware that she was unlicensed to offer immigration assistance. One couple said that they spent six years separated from one another after one of Ms. Castillo’s employees said that the wife could get legal status if she returned to her native Honduras.
A full list of accused businesses in New Jersey can be found here.
When it comes to immigration-related matters, it is best to always seek the guidance of an experienced immigration lawyer who can advise you on the legal actions and protect your legal rights during the process. The immigration lawyers at Bretz & Coven, LLP, have over 20 years’ experience assisting clients with various immigration matters, including visa application, petition for asylum, crimmigration, and deportation defense matters. With law offices conveniently located in New York, New York, and Clark, New Jersey, our immigration lawyers are available to assist individuals throughout the New York metro area. To schedule a consultation, call (212) 267-2555 or fill out our contact form.