The now-defunct Syms clothing store had a slogan, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” Unfortunately, many asylum seekers and immigrants are not well educated about the immigration system or the attorneys and notarios who represent them (a notario, in the parlance of our times, is a non-lawyer who purportedly assists aliens with their immigration paperwork).
Some notarios are honest and do excellent work; some are crooks who exploit an alien’s naivete about the immigration system and steal their money. Although it is somewhat self-serving for an immigration lawyer (like me) to condemn notarios, I have seen many instances where a notario caused an alien to lose his case or where the notario took the alien’s money and disappeared. Also, I am certainly not alone in my opinion: AILA has an over-the-top website called Stop Notario Fraud, and USCIS has a campaign explaining that the wrong help can hurt. Not to mention that it is illegal to provide legal representation unless you are an attorney or an authorized representative.
In the asylum context, many applicants use notarios to help prepare their affirmative cases (the name for these “helpers” varies depending on the country of origin; for example, an Ethiopian notario is called an “asterguami” or translator). The notarios are known to embellish cases or to simply make up stories. There is no regulatory authority (like a bar association) to police the notarios, and though their activity is illegal, they are rarely caught. They also spread misinformation in their communities about how the asylum process works. For example, there are persistent (and contradictory) rumors in the Ethiopian community that well-educated asylum seekers are granted asylum because the U.S. needs talented people and also that the outcome of an asylum interview is random, so a well-prepared application is superfluous.
So what does all this have to do with immigration lawyers?
For one thing, when applicants have been educated by notarios in their communities to believe that the outcome of a case is random, or dependent on factors other than the fear of persecution, there is no incentive to hire a competent attorney. Indeed, the incentive is to hire the least expensive attorney available. Except in the case of non-profits or pro bono counsel, such attorneys are not likely to provide the highest quality service. Since many aliens do not understand that a decent attorney can improve the chances for success in a case, incompetent attorneys are able to continue attracting clients despite a poor track record. In this case, a mis-educated consumer is their best customer.
In addition, notarios can–to a large degree–control which attorneys their clients will hire after the notario loses the initial case and it is referred to an Immigration Judge. The notarios (who are not lawyers and cannot go to court) refer their unsuccessful clients to certain attorneys. As you might imagine, unscrupulous notarios refer their clients to unscrupulous attorneys.
The current efforts to crack down on notario fraud are a good start, but those efforts largely ignore non-Spanish speaking populations in general, and asylum seekers in particular. Advocacy organizations and the government should do more to address this problem. Stopping unscrupulous notarios will reduce asylum fraud and, indirectly, improve the quality of lawyers practicing immigration law.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
Jason Dzubow's practice focuses on immigration law, asylum, and appellate litigation. Mr. Dzubow is admitted to practice law in the federal and state courts of Washington, DC and Maryland, the United States Courts of Appeals for the Third, Fourth, Eleventh, and DC Circuits, all Immigration Courts in the United States, and the Board of Immigration Appeals. He is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and the Capital Area Immigrant Rights (CAIR) Coalition. In June 2009, CAIR Coalition honored Mr. Dzubow for his Outstanding Commitment to Defending the Rights and Dignity of Detained Immigrants.