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Thursday, April 25, 2024 | Back issues
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LA Warns Vulnerable Communities Against Immigration Scams

Amid mounting fears in Latino communities of increased deportations, Los Angeles officials on Thursday warned Angelenos to be wary of sham immigration consultants and notaries offering legal advice.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The unmarked vehicles pulled over Romulo Avelica Gonzalez two blocks from his 12-year-old daughter’s school in Lincoln Heights. Immigration agents emerged and arrested him under a 2014 deportation order.

Born in Mexico, Avelica had lived in America for close to a quarter of a century. His four daughters were all born in the United States. The deportation order was issued after Avelica sought legal advice from a notario, or notary, who had run away with his papers and money.

In Latin America, notarios often receive the equivalent of a law license, giving them authority to deal directly with the government. In United States, notaries can only witness signatures. Unethical notaries take advantage of clients who are unaware of the differences.

City Councilman Gil Cedillo said at a news conference Thursday Avelica would likely never have been arrested under the deportation order had he not used the notary, The Firm Ink Management.

“He was a victim,” Cedillo said. “Had the notario filed, had the notario complied with the law, had he seen a lawyer instead, he would not be in a position to be deported. He is a good citizen but for the failings of our system and the fraud of the notario.”

Cedillo has joined Sixth District Councilwoman Nury Martinez in moving for legislation to create licensing and permitting regulations for immigration consultants and notaries in Los Angeles. If the City Council approves the motion, the new regulations would allow its Office of Finance to monitor and identify the businesses to ensure they comply with the law.

Martinez introduced the motion in late 2016 and it is making its way back to the city’s immigration committee.

Speaking at the morning press conference at his offices, City Attorney Michael Feuer that immigration consultants and notaries are not permitted to offer legal advice to their customers. If the law passes, Feuer said, his office will cite and prosecute consultants that fail to comply with the California Immigration Consultant Act.

“As a dad, it's hard for me to contemplate how my kids could concentrate in school if they were worried that when they came home, mom or dad was never coming back,” Feuer said after the news conference. “It’s in this environment that I'm very concerned about people in desperation turning to notarios who might take advantage of it."

Legally, immigration consultants are limited to helping people change their immigration status helping them fill out and submit forms and get supporting documentation. They can make free referrals to attorneys who want legal advice. They can translate answers but cannot tell people what answers to provide, Feuer’s office said.

Martinez and Cedillo say Latinos are particularly vulnerable to notarios who claim to be qualified to help clients secure lawful status.

“Enforcement of state law and licensing relies largely on individual complainants, a strategy hamstrung by the fact that many immigrants fear that reporting this fraud will expose their undocumented status,” Martinez’s Sept. 21, 2016 motion states. “Many victims do not discover the fraud until years after their initial contact with the non-attorney.”

With ICE agents descending on courthouses and identifying themselves as police officers to gain entry into homes, Los Angeles city leaders are worried that the specter of deportation makes Latinos vulnerable to scams, less likely to interact with police, report crimes or go to public places, including schools.

Mayor Eric Garcetti said this week there is evidence that Angelenos are avoiding, parks, libraries and community centers for fear of deportation.

“That is unacceptable in our Los Angeles,” Garcetti said. “I don’t ever want good people to hold back from kicking balls in parks. I don’t want anybody to be scared.”

Police Chief Charlie Beck said this week he’s seen a decline in reports of domestic violence and sexual assaults. Beck said there is a “strong correlation” between the Trump administration's aggressive immigration policies and the 10 percent decline in reporting of spousal abuse and 25 percent decline in reporting of rape.

Through mid-March, there were 123 reports of rape compared with 164 over the same period in 2016. People in Hispanic communities also reported 1,092 incidents of spousal abuse in January and February, 118 less than the same period last year, the LAPD said.

“It is an outlier, in that no other demographic has been affected by this outside of our Hispanic demographic,” Beck said. “At this point, there’s no direct nexus to it, but there is a strong correlation. This is not a minor issue. It’s the safety of this city.”

Trump has vowed to build a wall on the southern border, withdraw federal funding to cities that act as sanctuaries to undocumented immigrants, and to deport the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country without proper documents.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice has accused Beck of speculating, saying that ICE considers whether a person is a victim of crime as they consider whether seek deportation.

“The inference by Los Angeles officials that the agency’s execution of its mission is undermining public safety is outrageous and wrongheaded,” Kice told the Los Angeles Times.

“In fact, the greater threat to public safety is local law enforcement’s continuing unwillingness to honor immigration detainers. Rather than transferring convicted criminal aliens to ICE custody as requested, agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department, are routinely releasing these offenders back onto the street to potentially reoffend, and their victims are often other members of the immigrant community.”

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