Updated at 5:10 p.m. to reflect response from the Missouri Attorney General's Office to questions about notario fraud. — Angie Gomez has seen and heard plenty of stories about how hard it is for unauthorized immigrants and migrant farmworkers to find lawyers to help them apply for, or change their legal status.
Gomez, family services coordinator for Su Casa Head Start in Cobden, Illinois, immigrated from Mexico in the 1960s and became a naturalized citizen. She says she sees more challenges facing migrant farmworkers and unauthorized immigrants seeking legal representation than ever before.
The town of Cobden is located east of the Mississippi River and about 15 miles south Carbondale, Illinois. A 2010 U.S. Census Bureau report shows that 28.6 percent of Cobden’s population is of Mexican descent. A large portion of the town’s revenue comes from the many orchards and farms in the surrounding areas.
According to Gomez, whose job puts her in close contact with unauthorized immigrant and migrant families, finding qualified immigration attorneys neither easy nor cheap.
“People had to go as far as Chicago or St. Louis to find you know somebody, some attorney that’s being able to communicate with them,” Gomez said. “And so can you imagine how costly that is.”
Chicago is about 350 miles from Cobden. St. Louis is less than 120 miles away, making it a more realistic destination for the immigrants and migrant workers who need lawyers.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association represents immigration lawyers across the United States. About a hundred AILA lawyers have Missouri addresses, and the majority of those lawyers are located in St. Louis and Kansas City, hours away from towns and villages that are home to immigrants and migrants who work the orchards and farms across southern Missouri and southern Illinois.
“If you are an immigrant in those more southeastern areas, southeastern Missouri, southern Illinois, southwestern Missouri area, and some of those places have significant Latino populations, you're traveling quite a ways to seek help," said Ken Schmitt, an immigration lawyer in St. Louis who is an AILA member and founder of U.S. Legal Solutions.
The drive to urban areas can prove to be a significant risk for unauthorized immigrants and even migrant farmworkers working legally in the United States.
“You might not be in removal proceedings, you might have a very legitimate basis for somebody to file a petition for you,” Schmitt said. “Or you’re going to St. Louis to work on your case: You’re at risk the whole way on the road to be pulled over for whatever reason and detained and possibly turned over to ICE for removal.”
Distance from rural clients and increasing demand for urban clients can be deterrents for lawyers to do immigration work in places like southern Illinois or southern Missouri.
“If I am driving from St. Louis or Belleville (to southern Illinois), it’s two and a half hours easy,” said Alex Enyart, an attorney for Eckert Enyart Attorneys-at-Law in Illinois. “That’s four-hundred bucks one way for a visit, eight-hundred round trip, not even including the time you’re talking to a client if you’re working on an hourly basis.”
Immigration lawyers have seen an increase in a particular kind of scam affecting people seeking legal services: Notario fraud.
Notario fraud occurs when a notary claims to have the same standing and expertise as a lawyer.
“In the United States a notary public is just authorized to notarize your signature,” said Jennifer Ibañez Whitlock, a St. Louis-based immigration lawyer and partner of Whitlock and Gray. “In Latin America, a notario publico has the same rights and responsibilities as an attorney does. And so I see a lot of times that's sort of the scam, is that somebody gets their notary license, advertises themselves as such in English and some Spanish-speaking immigrants will believe that that person somehow has some sort of legal training when they really don’t.”
Entanglement with a notario intent on fraud can mean legal consequences for a person seeking legal status, consequences that are hard to reverse.
St. Louis Public Radio asked the Missouri Attorney General’s Office for data on how many notario fraud cases exist in Missouri. The office said "we have searched our records and have no records responsive to your request."
Support and resources
Schmitt points to organizations that can offer assistance and advice:
- Catholic Legal Immigration Network
- St. Francis Community Services Legal Assistance Ministry
- The MICA Project
- American Immigration Lawyers Association
Ibañez Whitlock said that while lawyers practicing immigration aren’t required to be a member of AILA, knowing that an attorney is a member of the association guarantees the individual has a license to practice law. Local bar association membership is another positive indicator.
“There’s certainly value in using some resources like the local bar association,” she said. “If you're not an English speaker or if you're not really internet savvy, I tell people when you go into an office, look on the wall. Does the person have something up on the wall that looks like a law degree, which again, not every attorney is going to do that, but maybe that will give you the sense that this person is a real lawyer and that they're not pretending to be a lawyer.”
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