Attorney general aims to rub out 'notario' industry

Pasco attorney Tom Roach has seen hundreds of cases in which a so-called "notario" has made a detrimental mistake in an immigration case.

That's why the immigration attorney is hoping the state Legislature will pass a bill this session that he said would essentially put these quasi-legal assistants "out of the immigration business."

State Attorney General Rob McKenna has asked legislators to pass a bill that would prohibit people who aren't licensed to practice law from providing legal advice on immigration.

State law currently allows non-attorneys who register as an immigration assistant with the state to complete forms on someone's behalf.

But often those assistants, known in Spanish as notarios publicos, end up providing legal advice, said McKenna's office.

In Mexico, a notario publico is an attorney, Roach said. But here, all it means is that someone is over 18, a U.S. citizen, has paid a filing fee and has found 10 people willing to sign a form saying he or she is a moral person.

So immigrants who come to the U.S think they are getting a trained lawyer but they aren't, he said. Roach said he didn't see notarios as a problem until 15 years ago, when immigration law started becoming more complex, and the stakes for a mistake became deportation.

In 1997, a federal law created penalties for being in the country illegally and barred people from re-entering the U.S. legally for three years, 10 years or life, depending on the length of time someone was in the country and whether he or she had left and returned illegally during that time.

And being legal is not just as simple as being married to a U.S. citizen, Roach said. His office has 500 cases of Mexican nationals married to U.S. citizens. Under current law, many are not eligible for citizenship.

Immigration law is the nation's second most complex set of laws next to tax law, Roach said. And the law is constantly changing, which means attorneys must keep up with those changes to represent clients well.

Roach, an immigration attorney for 28 years, said he helped write the bill and approached McKenna about the notarios three years ago.

The bill would also prevent them from representing themselves as a lawyer, notario publico, notario or any title that implies they are a professional with legal skills in immigration law. They would not be able to select forms for a client or help answer forms.

Those who break the law could be fined a minimum of $1,000 per violation.

Some have been hurt when untrained people gave them advice on immigration law, said Kristin Alexander, a spokeswoman for McKenna.

His office has settled cases with three providers of immigration services and said 24 others are under investigation.

Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, a sponsor of the bill, said abuses in the current system make the changes necessary.

It's important that migrants get immigration advice from someone with legal training, he said.

Some are hesitant to seek help from the government and won't report when they've been a victim of fraud, Nealey said.

Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, another sponsor, said part of the reason he chose to support it was because he wants immigrants to be in the United States legally.

Nealey said it's too early to tell if the bill will pass, but noted it has both Republican and Democratic sponsors. It's been introduced as Senate Bill 5023 and House Bill 1146.