Los Angeles officials are raising awareness about scams by unscrupulous immigration consultants, often referred to as notarios, as people living in the country illegally seek help to avoid deportation in the wake of stiffer enforcement.
City Attorney Mike Feuer and other L.A. officials gathered at Feuer's office Monday to warn of the notario cases, in which some immigrants have lost thousands of dollars and faced deportation.
Feuer said the current climate following the Trump administration’s stepped up immigration arrests is ripe for exploitation by those seeking to take advantage of unauthorized residents.
“People are going to be turning increasingly to those who may prey on their vulnerability," Feuer said.
Notarios who scam immigrants have done so for decades.
One problem for potential victims is the word "notario" — in Latin American countries, it refers to someone with extensive legal training. In the United States, a notary public is someone who performs limited legal duties like certifying contracts and other documents.
The city attorney’s office has been working with the county's Department of Consumer and Business Affairs to pursue offending notarios, Feuer said, but enforcement is being stepped up.
"There could be a sting operation against your office right now," he warned offenders. "You had better conduct yourself on a lawful way."
The city attorney's office has received five notario fraud cases from the county for prosecution since January. The office could not say if that is an increase in such cases.
A tip sheet with information for consumers is posted in several languages on the city attorney's office website. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," it reads.
Feuer was joined by several city and county officials who back a City Council proposal that would require immigration consultants to pay for a local license. The proposal was introduced by City Councilmember Nury Martinez.
“With that fee, what we would be able to do is be able to enforce, and be able to have people who can go out there to check that you are not committing any fraud," Martinez said.
A local licensing program would allow city and county officials to better track immigration consultants who are operating outside the law, she said.
To operate legally in California, immigration consultants must already register with the state. They must also pass a background check and post a $100,000 bond.
But not everyone agrees with the local licensing idea. Los Angeles immigration attorney Nelson Castillo said he'd rather see more resources going to prosecutors and investigators so they can enforce the existing state rules.
"They are creating a new law that is not really necessary, because you already have a mechanism of laws that enables you to protect the consumer, only if you enforce it," Castillo said. "But there are not enough prosecutions taking place ... it's a question of resources."