Pro Bono vs. Cons

Villanova Law student Vanessa Stine assists immigrants who’ve been victims of notario fraud

Published in 2014 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers — June 2014

Vanessa Stine was volunteering for the nonprofit Friends of Farmworkers one summer between law school semesters when she noticed a disturbing trend. Many of her clients—low-wage immigrant farmworkers in need of legal aid for employment-related issues—had also been swindled by people claiming to be lawyers.

The problem is often referred to as notario fraud, after the type of legal professional from Spanish-speaking countries, “notarios,” that scam artists impersonate. Scammers exploit illegal immigrants looking to legalize or adjust their residency status in the U.S., telling victims relief exists where none does. Illegal immigrants are prime targets because they are less likely to report to law enforcement that they’ve been victims of fraud.

“They’re scared,” says Stine, a third-year Villanova University School of Law student. “They don’t know how to report these crimes. There are language barriers, cultural barriers, mistrust. … Some people are coming from countries where the police have persecuted them.”

When she couldn’t find any local organizations specifically aimed at fighting notario fraud, Stine took matters into her own hands. She founded the Notario Fraud Project in fall 2012 with two main goals: documenting immigration fraud schemes and helping victims fight back against fraud. The project now has about 10 volunteers, and to date has interviewed 24 immigrants who believe they’ve been defrauded; educated more than 400 immigrants on their rights through workshops; and helped connect 18 individuals with local immigration nonprofits who can assist them.

“There are many ways in which immigrants are exploited in this country, unfortunately. Every time that happens, they lose faith in our system,” Stine says. “What’s valuable about the project is that it’s about trying to get to the root of these schemes to prevent them and help victims stand up against unfairness.”

After identifying a possible victim, Notario Fraud Project volunteers conduct an interview using a questionnaire Stine developed to help document each person’s story.

In one case, a con artist told two immigrants that he could get them green cards for $10,000 apiece. The paperwork was never filed. In another case, an immigrant looking for tax help was talked into paying thousands of dollars to apply for a permanent residency that he wasn’t actually eligible for.

The final two interview questions are always, “What would you ideally like to see happen?” and “What’s your goal?”

When the answer is, “I want to get my money back,” the project tries to find clients legal help through organizations like Villanova Law School’s Farmworker Legal Aid Clinic. While it’s a good start, Stine still sees a gap in legal assistance for victims. 

“Part of why this gap in services has persisted is because it falls between the cracks of traditional service delivery,” she says. “Immigration legal service providers do not have the expertise to bring civil claims, and local consumer law nonprofits lack the necessary knowledge in immigration law to understand the schemes.”

Stine is determined to close that gap. “I’m trying to apply for funding to help do some of the representation at a nonprofit after I graduate,” she says. “I don’t think it’s an impossible task. I think that we can find legal support to do training with pro bono attorneys and legal services organizations to build up a network of folks who could handle cases.”

Professor Beth Lyon, director of the Farmworker Legal Aid Clinic, has kept an eye on Stine’s efforts. “In many years of working with public interest and pro bono-oriented students at Villanova Law, I have not met Vanessa Stine’s equal. She is quick to grasp the root causes of social and institutional problems and address them with creativity, integrity and persistence,” Lyon says. “What she has achieved in less than three years of law school would make highly seasoned activists proud.”

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