Scam targets undocumented immigrants

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

PHOENIX -- The federal government is teaming up with the Arizona State Bar to crack down on scammers targeting undocumented immigrants.

Victor Bustamonte was the victim of one of these scams. He has lived in the United States since he was 6 months old. When he turned 21, he wanted to gain citizenship and heard an advertisement on the radio for a notario who could help.

“When I went to her office, she showed me a lot of paperwork," Bustamonte said. "Documents showing I helped this person, I helped that person.”

Bustamonte paid the woman $5,000 but soon learned he had paid an even bigger price.

“She forgot to put in a document," he said. "Two weeks later I got a letter saying I was being deported."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the State Bar of Arizona have teamed up to crack down on these scams.

“The immigrant community, both legal and illegal, is a vulnerable population," said Patricia Vroom, an ICE attorney. "They are easy prey to unscrupulous people who promise them a ticket to the American dream, for a price.”

The problem may be related to some cultural confusion. In many countries, including Mexico, a notario is a licensed attorney. In the United States, a notario is a notary public and is not authorized to practice law.

“Half of my caseload comes from botched cases from notarios,” said Delia Salvatierra with the State Bar of Arizona, who is also an immigration attorney now representing Bustamonte. “Immigrants think they’re going to someone cheaper, but it turns out to be much more expensive, because you have to pay for the scam and then you have to pay to fix the scam.”

Although anyone can fill out the citizenship documents, only licensed attorneys know who is eligible for citizenship. As a result, even well-intentioned notarios can alert the federal government that someone is here illegally.

“This is after they have paid thousands of dollars to apply for a benefit to which they are not legally entitled," Vroom said. "Instead of getting a green card, they end up getting deported."

Ironically, if Bustamonte had gone to a licensed attorney in the first place, he would have paid less money and would likely not have been deported, because he was eligible for citizenship.

The federal government and the State Bar have several websites up and running to report these scams and to guide immigrants in the citizenship process. The Federal Trade Commission is partnering with local law enforcement officials across the country, allowing them access to reports of scams.

Those websites are www.FTC.gov/immigration and www.aznotario.com.