The Latino Action Network included a recommendation to the State in our annual report, released in September, to launch a statewide public awareness program that would “inform immigrants of the unscrupulous practices of notarios that prey on the desperation of the immigrant community.” The state launched an investigation that netted 28 New Jersey businesses accused of defrauding immigrants. Read the full story below:
(This article orginially appeared on NorthJersey.com)
The state Division of Consumer Affairs has cited 28 New Jersey businesses for allegedly defrauding customers by charging for immigration services that they are not legally permitted to provide, authorities said Friday.
Notaries public, tax preparers, travel agencies and other businesses as far north as Paterson and as far south as Lakewood received notices of violation accusing them of charging for services that can be performed only by an attorney or by representatives accredited by the federal government.
Some of the businesses were accused of charging more than $1,500 for services they weren't authorized to perform, the state alleged.
This operation is part of the state's effort to curb so-called "notario" fraud, a practice in which a notary public takes advantage of Spanish-speaking customers who believe they are consulting with an attorney or immigration expert. The term comes from certain Latin American countries where "notarios" are attorneys or have legal training to prepare documents for their clients and offer legal advice.
Notaries public in the United States cannot legally offer or perform these services, nor can they charge more than a few dollars to witness signatures.
“Today we are reinforcing our commitment to protecting all New Jersey residents, regardless of their legal status, from financial predators,” said Paul R. Rodríguez, acting director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. “All New Jersey residents who fall victim to fraud or other unlawful conduct should know that they can safely report the matter to law enforcement. We are here for you.”
The division is seeking a total of $326,000 in penalties after a months-long undercover operation. Individually, the businesses face penalties ranging from $6,000 to $16,000. In some cases, an individual associated with a business may also face civil penalties, authorities said.
“At a time when immigrant communities feel threatened, it is more important than ever that we prevent unauthorized and unqualified practitioners from exposing individuals to heightened risk of deportation and loss of their legal rights," Rodriguez said.
Frank Argote-Freyre, director of the Latino Coalition of New Jersey, said he was thrilled to hear that the state had taken action against businesses that offer unauthorized immigration services.
“This is a great step,” he said. “It’s time that they crack down on these duplicitous notarios. They prey on people’s dreams and give them false hope.”
The Latino Action Network, a statewide group that includes the Latino Coalition, included a recommendation in its annual report, released in September, to launch a statewide public awareness program that would “inform immigrants of the unscrupulous practices of notarios that prey on the desperation of the immigrant community.”
An 'underground economy' of unlicensed services
Advocates, lawyers and former clients say several businesses in New Jersey are part of what state officials have called an "underground economy" of unlicensed practitioners who charge money to give legal advice and fill out immigration forms.
In several Latin American countries, "notarios" have similar backgrounds and duties as lawyers. In the United States, they can be easily confused with a notary public, a state-registered witness who cannot offer legal advice or charge more than a few dollars to notarize a document.
Unlicensed consultants advertising immigration services have taken advantage of that confusion by using the word "notario" in their materials. They offer to fill out immigration forms for hundreds of dollars, sometimes while offering legitimate services like travel planning, tax preparation and translations, legal experts and authorities say.
Many victims have found themselves destitute, state officials said. Some find that they have forfeited irreplaceable documents, including passports and birth certificates, to unscrupulous notarios.
"This is an underground economy that thrives on secrecy and blind trust," Lisa Coryell, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General's office, which includes the Division of Consumer Affairs, said in an email in March. "When complaints are brought to the Division's attention, it responds to them and investigates."
However, the fact that the burden is on the victim to report wrongdoing presents one of the biggest challenges to going after these operations, advocates and public officials say. Some victims are not aware that they are dealing with an unlicensed immigration adviser. Others say they fear being exposed to immigration authorities.
"A 'notario' filing a fraudulent or incorrect application based on poor understanding of the law has the potential to ruin a foreign national's life and the life of his or her family members," said Eileen King English, an immigration attorney based in Freehold. "Families can be separated for years, thousands of dollars can be lost, and people can spend years in lengthy administrative processes that could have been avoided if they had sought immigration counsel initially.
Lazaro Cardenas, deputy director of the Latino Coalition of New Jersey, said that while he would like to see more victims take their complaints to state authorities, he recognizes that they must weigh the risks, including the possibility that they could expose themselves to immigration authorities.
"If you feel you've been wronged, I believe you should report that person because that person is not probably just hurting you, he or she is probably hurting many people in the same community," he said. "But it's a personal decision that everyone has to make."
A family's ordeal
One of the businesses that was cited in the state sweep is Consuelo's Travel LLC, which has locations in Lakewood, Freehold Borough, Bradley Beach and, until recently, Red Bank.
Todd Naecker of Toms River estimates that he spent about $2,000 over four years with a so-called 'notario' who he said advised his undocumented wife, Olga, to return to her native Honduras and return in a year or two. The couple were separated for years. Asbury Park Press
In an interview in March, the owner, Consuelo Castillo of Toms River said her employees file green card petitions, applications for Temporary Protected Status and other immigration forms for a fee. But neither Castillo nor her two associates is licensed to practice law in New Jersey, a requirement for those performing such immigration services. Nor are they supervised by a lawyer, Castillo said.
Castillo who said she was a lawyer in her native Peru, insisted that her agency has done nothing wrong by offering immigration help.
"It's not illegal," she said, speaking in Spanish. "I've spoken with immigration officials, and they themselves say the immigration forms are designed so the people can fill them out themselves."
"I sincerely believe I provide a service for the community," she said.
Count Todd Naecker of Toms River among those who would take issue with that statement.
Naecker estimates that he spent about $2,000 over four years with Consuelo's businesses. Her employees, he said, advised his undocumented wife, Olga, to return to her native Honduras, saying Naecker could bring her back with her two Honduran-born sons in a year or two.
The Naeckers followed that advice, unaware that the United States typically makes undocumented immigrants wait five or 10 years before they may re-enter the country legally, unless the government issues a waiver.
Her sons, now 15 and 23,were admitted into the United States two years later, but she was not. The agents at Consuelo's Travel filed multiple requests for waivers to get permission for Olga to return, all of which were denied.
Unlike many immigrant families, the Naeckers eventually managed to resolve their case. After five years, an immigration attorney filed a petition on Todd Naecker's behalf to bring Olga back as a green card holder. Olga got an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Honduras and was approved to enter the United States.
More than six years and $10,000 later, including fees that the family paid to their immigration lawyer and to Castillo, Olga Naecker returned to New Jersey as a legal resident.
"It's confusion on top of it, in my mind thinking, 'Well, I thought I was dealing with a lawyer,'" Naecker said in an interview earlier this year, "and now I find out I've never been dealing with a lawyer. I've only been dealing with someone who's just doing the paperwork."
Reached Friday night, Castillo said she referred the Naeckers to Mejer after Olga's petition was rejected because she had a deportation order. Castillo said she plans to work with the Division of Consumer Affairs to resolve the matter.
"I already had 20 years working on this, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has never rejected any of my applications," she said. "I have a lot of cases approved with them. If I have to get accredited, I'll do it. If I have to study here, I'll study."
Reached on Friday, Todd Naecker said he did not have an immediate comment on the notice of violation that had been served against Castillo. Andres Mejer, the attorney who represented the family, said he welcomed the state's enforcement action.
“It’s a welcome start, letting the public know that these individuals or these entities are at the end of the day not trustworthy, not licensed or at the end of the day not liable,” Mejer said. “It’s these individuals whose lives get turned around, who are separated from their loved ones.”
Business owners respond
The offices of AMC Immigration Services on Palisade Avenue in Garfield were closed on Friday. Reached by phone, the owner, Ahmed Abelbary, said he had received a violation notice and has been fined $12,000. Abelbary said he started the business about a year ago and that much of his work involves referring people to immigration attorneys.
“The only thing I did with people, because they are very poor, is tell them where to start,” he said. “I doubt anyone can find anything that I’ve given people advice on.”
He said he did help someone fill out a citizenship application form and was paid about $100. Another person paid him $20 for scheduling an appointment with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“It took me two days,” he said, adding that he hasn't made any money from the business and works as an Uber driver.
Abelbary said there is a need for services that help immigrants fill out paperwork, adding that immigration attorneys can charge too much. “I have never had anyone tell me you are not allowed to do this,” he said.
Edgar Custodio, the owner of La Feria in Plainfield, said he wasn’t around last week when a state agent visited his store. The business was cited for advertising immigration services on its storefront window and website.
Custodio didn’t say how much he was fined, but Custodio said that this is the first time in his 30 years in business that he has been notified of any problems with his advertising.
“We were not advertising ourselves as attorneys or immigration advisers. We were just helping them fill out paperwork,” Custodio said, adding that he tells his clients he’s not an immigration adviser.
Custodio said he has removed the immigration signage from his storefront. He and his wife, Vanessa, who was present when the agent visited the store, expressed concern that the state didn’t give them an opportunity make changes and address the problems.
“I think they need to advise and give you some sort of warning,” Vanessa Custodio said. “If we would have gotten a warning that said we weren’t supposed to be doing something specific, we would have been seeking assistance right away.”
“The thing is, we just got a letter now with a huge fine on it,” she added. “We’re a small business.”
Staff Writer Monsy Alvarado contributed to this article.
Steph Solis: @stephmsolis; 732-403-0074; email@example.com.
N.J. businesses accused of 'notario' fraud
The following New Jersey businesses were served notices of violation for allegedly engaging in so-called "notario" fraud:
A&A Consultants LLC, Elizabeth
AC Velox Multiservice LLC, Elizabeth
Airsealand Tours Inc., a.k.a. Air Sea Land Travel & Tax or Air Sea Land Group, Kearny
AMC Immigration Services LLC, Garfield
Angel Financial Services, Elizabeth
Borche’s Service Express Travel Inc., d.b.a. Services Express Corporation, Plainfield
Consuelos Travel LLC & Consuelos Immigration Services, Lakewood
D’ Vazquez Tax Solutions LLC, a.k.a. D’Vazquez Tax Solutions LLC or E.C.T.A. Envios El Costeño, Garfield
Dieugrand Insurance Agency LLC, Jersey City
Foto-Loft LLC, a.k.a. Photo Loft, Newark
IG Tax Multiservices LLC, a.k.a. IG Tax Multi Services LLC, North Bergen
J.V. Services, d.b.a. JV Typing Services, Elizabeth
La Feria Services LLC, Plainfield
Miriam Caso, a.k.a. Bookkeeping & Tax Services LLC, West New York
Master Agency LLC, Paterson
MIA Services LLC, Union City
Nancy Tax Services, Union City
N-VIA Travel & Associates LLC, Trenton
P & L Multiservices LLC, Garfield
Pro Immigrants Foundation Inc., Elizabeth
QAP Total Services Corp., Elizabeth
Kenny Tax Service, a.k.a Kenny Tax Services, Paterson
Mundo Travel Agency, Trenton
SS Professional Services Corp., Jersey City
Sylvana's Multiservices LLC, a.k.a. Sylvana’s Multiservices Marilyn’s Services, Elizabeth
Time Travel LLC, Long Branch
West Side Brokerage Inc., Jersey City