Christopher Anders (left) says that notarios in the United States are totally different than those in Mexico. Anders and Awilda Medina, Tilman Hasche, and Sonia Molinar are part of the immigration team at Parker Butte & Lane. / Photo by Richard Jones, El Hispanic News

Richard Jones
El Hispanic News

Portland, OR — When is a notary public not a notario público? At first glance one would think these terms would cover the same territory. That, however, is not the case.

The website of the Secretary of State of Texas carries an essay by Jonathan A, Pikoff and Charles J. Crimmins. This study shows that a gap wider than the Rio Grande Río Bravo separates these two job descriptions.

Portland-based immigration lawyer Christopher Anders said that the same gap applies between notarios in the United States and Latin America.

Notarios públicos in Latin American countries have the power to serve as a mediators in disputes, issue judicial opinions, and intervene in judicial proceedings. In the U.S., a notary public basically certifies documents and administers oaths.

In short, if you find someone who calls himself a notario, you should not assume that he or she has the powers of a notario in Mexico. Anders warned that anyone facing immigration problems could be seriously harmed by people not licensed to practice immigration law.

Anders said the U.S. Immigration and Customs Service (ICE) warns against frauds who pose as licensed attorneys, immigration experts, or government officials. Well-intentioned friends and family members, by offering inaccurate advice, can harm the people they are trying to help.

Those national differences carry a lot of weight. Anders said, “These forms are dangerous in the wrong hands.”

Tilman Hasche, also an immigration law specialist, said, “Your typical notario will help some people, but they are not trained [in the fine points of immigration law] and they [often] go wrong. In some cases, they cause people to be deported.”

Anders and Hasche are two of six attorneys at the Portland law firm of Parker Butte & Lane. The firm serves individuals, corporations, and non-profit organizations. Paralegals Awilda Medina and Sonia Molinar round out the firm’s deportation, removal, and asylum team.

Anders and Hasche warn against scammers. Many rely on a victim believing that someone who speaks a common language can be trusted. Some scammers will promise permanent residency when they know the victim is not eligible. Others will take the victim’s money and file applications for benefits that will never arrive. Others yet will take money but never file any papers. The cost of these frauds can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Anders noted that immigration laws and forms are not always pillars of logic. As a result, few people other than specialists can understand them.

Down to cases

In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act opened many doors for immigrant workers to become legal residents. This law, pieced together by Congress during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, was extremely complicated.

In his signing statement, Reagan called the programs “the product of one of the longest and most difficult legislative undertakings of recent memory.”

In its many sections, the bill — also known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act or the Amnesty Act — has a maze of provisions that leave many points unclear. For example, if an undocumented worker returns to visit his or her parents in Mexico, the worker might — or might not — be denied access to a green card.

The length of stay and reasons for visits are left for judges to decide whether any particular visit to other countries make a person ineligible for permanent resident status.

Another difficulty is that most people think that if an immigrant marries a U.S. citizen, all problems are solved.

Anders recalled a case illustrating the trouble caused by not understanding those points.

Anders told of a Mexican national who married a woman with U.S. citizenship. Along the way, the man had made many visits to his family still living in Mexico.

An uninformed notario told the man to drive down to Ciudad Juárez to pick up his green card. Unbeknownst to the man — or the notario — leaving the country instead triggered a permanent bar to re-entry. That left the man in Mexico, unable to reunite with his U.S. citizen wife and children in Oregon.

The notario’s intentions were good, but his lack of knowledge of details proved disastrous.

“That trip to Mexico became a one-way trip,” Anders reflected.

Anders noted another unclear point in the 1986 law. A worker covered by Simpson-Mazzoli might be eligible for a green card, but the spouse and children might not be. For decades this wrinkle left many families in legal limbo.

Such inconsistent details require years of specialized training to understand. Some Oregon notarios may be well versed in the law, Anders said, but most are not.

Anders cited a case in which immigrants from Kazakhstan — a husband, wife, and adult son — each had to follow a different path to U.S. citizenship.

Hasche remembered the case of a Guatemalan who had been kidnapped at the age of 14 by one of the armies in that country’s civil war. The young man was forced into service for the Guatemalan army.

When the man escaped, the army leaders vowed to kill the escaped man.

After arriving in Oregon, the man asked a notario to fill out an asylum application. The notario, according to Hasche, did such a poor job that the man’s work permit — in those days granted routinely when filing an asylum application — was denied although he had a very strong case. The man also faced a strong risk of having his asylum case denied and being sent back to Guatemala.

Hasche told of another young man, two years short of becoming eligible for permanent residence. A notario in Portland advised the young man — a father — to get married so that his wife, also undocumented, could obtain lawful permanent residence with him.

Unfortunately, the notario offered bad advice. The man was the beneficiary of an immigration petition through his father that was limited to single adult sons and daughters of permanent residents. By marrying the mother of his children, he had voided the petition that would have qualified him for lawful permanent resident status. His wait of more than 15 years was wasted because of a notario’s misinformation.

Where to turn?

With cases such as these, Anders reasoned, “Immigration law is not a field for dabblers. People need to make educated choices when seeking help on immigration matters.”

He suggested checking with non-profit organizations and community centers for the names of attorneys skilled in this specialized corner of the law.

Failing that, one can call the state bar for names of appropriate attorneys. Another list of well-versed lawyers can come from a home computer. A search for the American Immigrations Lawyer Association — or simply AILA — will deliver a list of attorneys. AILA lists about 20 legal firms in Oregon that deal in immigration cases.