Lost in Translation
Notarios take advantage of Texas’ immigrant communities
on October 24, 2017
Updated on February 8, 2021
If there’s one legal issue in Texas that could likely be wiped away if it was given more attention, it’s the notario situation.
According to Austin immigration attorney Robert Loughran, in Latin America and Spain, a notario publico is more than a lawyer—it’s a well-educated and certified position that goes back hundreds of years. In the United States, of course, “a notary is much less than a lawyer,” Loughran says. “Anyone with $80 and a clean criminal record can be a notary.”
“It gets lost in translation,” adds Gary Ilagan, an immigration attorney in Houston. “Clients think the person they’re talking to is a lawyer, and that they’re going to be taken care of.”
In reality, a United States notary simply witnesses signatures on documents. And anyone advertising themselves as a “notario” or “notario publico” is taking advantage of the immigrant population. “[Notarios] file documents on their behalf and collect a fee for doing so,” says Loughran. “They pay a government filing fee, which is effectively being thrown away if the applicant does not qualify.”
Loughran adds that he’s never heard of a notario becoming qualified in the practice of U.S. immigration laws. “They just sort of throw things together and get them on file,” he says. “By definition, they’re lay-people who are not trained on reading the law, interpreting the law or understanding the law.”
Ilagan says that a notario’s services vary in cost, but can run anywhere from hundreds of dollars to $10,000; some notarios have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars before being found out. Ilagan has had clients who have previously paid a notary, only to later learn nothing was filed. Or, even worse, “they filed something bogus, and it ends up damaging the case.”
“Over the years, I’ve had a number of clients come in for consultations and tell horror stories about how they paid this fee for this promise and nothing ever came of it,” adds Loughran. Like Ilagan, he argues that one of the worst things a notario can do is submit a fraudulent application. If a client signs such a document, they could be permanently barred from the United States.
The Supreme Court of Texas Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee, on which Ilagan used to serve, investigates notario activity. If you see a notario advertising their services contact the committee or file a complaint with the secretary of state’s office. If the notario is in fact committing fraud—promising a benefit, taking money and not delivering on that benefit—the attorney general may then take up a case.
Loughran hopes immigrants will seek out a reputable attorney for their immigration needs. But, he says, “Under the current administration, there’s a heightened sense of fear in immigrant communities. And whenever there’s fear or anxiety, that’s something that notarios can take advantage of.
“There’s nothing positive I can say about notarios.”
For more information on this area of law, see our immigration overview.