An estimated 10,000 undocumented and unaccompanied children caught at the U.S-Mexico border in the last 11 months will be fast-tracked through deportation hearings at New York’s federal immigration court over the course of the next year. To each new child who appears in court for the first time, a judge repeats the same refrain: Here is a list of lawyers who offer free or very low cost legal assistance — do not go to a notario for help.
“Notarios” market themselves as consultants to newly arrived immigrants, charging exorbitant rates with the promise that they can help undocumented individuals achieve legal status.
The New York Immigration Coalition works with more than 150 agencies across New York State. “We have consistently heard from our member agencies that immigration fraud is one of the biggest issues that they face,” NYIC Executive Director Steve Choi said at a press conference announcing new legislation designed to catch, prosecute, and punish notarios held on Thursday at the New York headquarters of Catholic Charities.
“We’ve heard so many instances where you have immigrants who are trying to get a green card, trying to get work authorization documents, or just some sort of legal help for their deportation case or their asylum case, and unfortunately, what ends up happening is that notarios and other unscrupulous providers defraud them out of thousands of dollars, and what’s worse, they also put them at risk of deportation,” Choi said.
At the press conference on Thursday, New York Secretary of State Cesar Perales called immigration fraud a “cause célèbre” for Governor Cuomo, who prosecuted a number of cases during his time as attorney general. In the U.S., Perales says, “There is a very complicated set of laws. [New immigrants] are easily confused and easily taken advantage of by people in the community who will say, ‘I can help you, I can give you legal advice, I can help you fill out these forms. You’ll be able to stay in this country; you’ll be able to petition for your wife’ — a variety of things. We’ve all known about this, but for some time we’ve been wrestling with how to combat it as strongly as we can.”
In August, the governor signed the Immigrant Assistance Service Enforcement Act, authored by Bronx Assemblyman Marcos Crespo. The legislation creates two new crimes — felony and misdemeanor immigration assistance fraud — for which shady notarios can now be charged. (The confidential hotline to receive immigration assistance or report notarios is 1-800-566-7636.)
On Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his own action on immigration: The city will now be stationing representatives at the federal immigration courthouse to assist unaccompanied children. Officials with the City’s Department of Education will be on hand to help enroll kids in school and English language programs, officials from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will help enroll them in public health insurance plans, and officials from the Health and Hospital Corporation will be available to help address any medical or mental health issues. It is the first time the city has installed city workers at the federal immigration court.
“These children have come here because they have families or sponsors in New York City, and it is our responsibility to assist them. States and municipalities must do all they can to help their immigrant communities — and we hope New York City’s response helps model a more humanitarian approach at these dockets to provide these children with stability and safety,” de Blasio said in a statement on Tuesday.