Notaries preying on undocumented immigrants, attorneys say
Quest for driver's licenses, permits can lead to trouble
By Tal Abbady | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
August 12, 2008

Over the years, word had spread in his Jupiter neighborhood. If you want a driver's license, go to a notario. Need a work permit? The notario can arrange it.

So Edgar, undocumented and eager for a pass out of the fringes of the law, walked into a notary public's office and plunked down more than $500.

The Mexican native obtained the documents — along with a deportation order.

Attorneys say hundreds of undocumented immigrants in Florida and around the country are victims of notaries who engage in the unlicensed practice of law by providing legal advice and filing immigration-related documentation on their behalf — work a notary is not authorized to do.

Asylum applicants are eligible for work permits and driver's licenses while their cases are pending. But a frivolous asylum application filed in order to obtain the license can result in a deportation order, according to several attorneys familiar with the practice.

"There's a lot of confusion as to what these companies can and can't do," said Janet Morgan, the bar counsel in the Florida Bar Association's Fort Lauderdale office who is investigating complaints filed against notaries. "There can be terrible results for people who go in and rely on a non-lawyer to prepare the right application for them."

Edgar, 27, said he went to Lake Worth notary Fabian Sosa in 2006. He said he signed documentation for what he was told was a temporary work permit and a driver's license. With a receipt from the transaction, he was able to get a license at a Department of Motor Vehicles office.

In fact, Edgar and his attorney said, the receipt was for an asylum application. In July 2007, Edgar was ordered before an immigration judge who told him his request for asylum was denied. He was dumbfounded.

"I never asked for asylum," said Edgar, who last name is being withheld because he is still trying to obtain legal status. "I know as a Mexican I'm not eligible."

Sosa declined to comment on Edgar's case.

Notarios, or notaries, have broad legal powers in Mexico and throughout Latin America, and immigrants often assume their role is similar here. But in the U.S., notaries are limited to taking oaths, authenticating certain documents and acting largely as a typing service. Officials say that hasn't stopped many notaries from advertising legal services in heavily immigrant neighborhoods in order to draw desperate clients to their storefront operations. The unlicensed practice of law is a third-degree felony in Florida.

"Notaries are seizing upon fears and rumors of raids, pickups and deportations," said Linda Osberg-Braun, president of the South Florida chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "They often represent themselves to be lawyers and sell hope where hope does not exist."

Osberg-Braun said the association would soon launch a Spanish-language radio campaign in South Florida to help educate immigrants about notary fraud.

"These people are getting rich on other people's pain. People need better information so they don't keep falling into these traps, " said Edgar.

The Florida Bar Association opened 659 unlicensed practice of law complaints, 163 of them immigration-related, in the 2007-2008 fiscal year, Morgan said. Thirty-seven complaints have been filed in 2008 against Sosa, owner of Las Americas Service on Dixie Highway in Lake Worth, she said. The complaints remain open. Spokesperson Sandi Copes said the Florida Attorney General's office also is investigating Sosa for practicing law without a license.

Sosa, who opened his business 18 years ago, denied the allegations that he had engaged in the unlicensed practice of law.

He said immigration attorneys often blame notaries as a tactic to get a stay of deportation from a judge. He said his agency simply provided a translation service and at no point offered legal advice. When he learned that some former clients who'd landed before an immigration judge were blaming him, he began asking clients to sign a waiver warning them false testimonials could lead to deportation. He said he no longer provides any translations for asylum claims.

West Palm Beach immigration attorney Aileen Josephs was able to halt Edgar's deportation, but said she knows of dozens of other cases in Palm Beach County that ended with forced removals and devastated families.

"The federal government is going after these immigrants with the pretense that they are fugitives of the law. But these fugitives are victims of people who have abused their vulnerability," Josephs said.

When asked about the allegations made by Josephs and Edgar, Sosa said he did not know the attorney and that he would not comment further. Josephs said she had spoken with Sosa about the allegations, but had not filed a complaint.

Aura, 26, a Guatemalan native who lives in Jupiter, regrets the day her partner consulted a notario. (It was not Sosa.)

Jose Antonio Melgar, 28, was deported to his native Honduras three months ago after the asylum claim a notary filed on his behalf was denied and authorities flagged him. He left behind two children, including a 2-year-old son who often refuses to sleep or eat since witnessing his father's arrest.

"You fill out a form and then this happens," Aura said. "Nobody warns you."

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