Sarah Cossman is a second-year student at American University Washington College of Law. She graduated magna cum laude from Syracuse University with a degree in international relations, and has work experience in private immigration as well as the detained docket.
Immigration scams targeting non-citizens can have devastating impacts on an individual’s status and ability to remain legally in the United States legally. The phenomenon of notario fraud occurs when an individual misrepresents themself as a notario publico in an effort to defraud immigrants seeking legal services. In Spanish speaking countries, a notario publico is a highly trained legal professional akin to an attorney who provides legal advice and drafts legal documents. The English equivalent, a notary, is an individual with narrow witnessing duties and much less discretion. Problems arise when individuals obtain a notary public license in the United States, and use that license to substantiate representations that they are a notario publico to immigrant populations that ascribe a vastly different meaning to the term. Individuals victimized by notaries are the subjects of white-collar crime and have avenues of recovery through the Federal Trade Commission, but may still face issues with their immigration status. Currently, the U-Visa,T-Visa, and VAWA give non-citizens who have been victims of crimes either in the United States or by United States citizens a path to citizenship. Congress should expand U-Visa provisions to treat notario fraud as a qualifying crime.
In 2000, Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act which included the creation of new forms of immigration relief for immigrant victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, and other criminal activities. VAWA 2000 created the U-Visa for crime victims, the T-Visa, and a continued presence to help immigrant victims of human trafficking. It also expanded VAWA self-petitions, battered spouse waivers, and protections against deportation for immigrant survivors. This legislation proposed to assist victims, such as providing a means for immediate protections from their abusers through access to shelters and easier access to the courts and to the legal assistance necessary to keep their abusers away from them. Legislation, such as VAWA, has continued to evolve, but its successors, like the U-Visa, must also evolve.
The U nonimmigrant status (U-Visa) is set aside for victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity. Congress created the U nonimmigrant visa with the passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (including the Battered Immigrant Women’s Protection Act) in October 2000. The list of qualifying crimes does not include notario fraud specifically, nor is there an umbrella qualification for fraud. There is a category for “other related crimes” but without more specific guidelines, victims of notario fraud have a harder time proving their claim.
Precedent for strengthening the U-Visa can be found in the legislative history of the T-Visa. T- Visas offer protection to victims and strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to detect, investigate and prosecute human trafficking.
Human trafficking, also known as trafficking in persons, is a form of modern-day slavery in which traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to compel individuals to provide labor or services, including commercial sex. Traffickers often take advantage of vulnerable individuals, including those lacking lawful immigration status. T-Visa guidelines very clearly outline what qualifies as trafficking and the eligibility criteria to receive this status. Creating a similar structure within the U-Visa for victims of notario fraud is within governmental authority.
The decision to approve a U-Visa is discretionary, which means USCIS officials can ultimately decide whether potential immigrants deserve the waiver. When making U-Visa determinations, USCIS analyzes the nature of the injury inflicted, the severity of the perpetrator’s conduct, the severity of the harm suffered, the duration of the infliction of the harm, and the extent to which there is permanent or serious harm to the appearance, health, or physical or mental soundness of the victim. Discretionary relief is no help if USCIS decides the crime doesn’t qualify. Amending the list of qualifying crimes would ensure more victims receive the relief they deserve. Expanding access to immigrant visas for victims of white-collar crime would also enhance immigrants’ rights and incentivize increased reporting among immigrant communities.
Important Differences Between Notaries and “Notarios”, Nat’l Notary Ass’n, 2023, https://www.nationalnotary.org/knowledge-center/about-notaries/notaries-and-notarios.
About Notorio Fraud, American bar Ass’n, Jan. 31, 2022, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_interest/immigration/projects_initiatives/fightnotariofraud/about_notario_fraud/
 Katrina Castillo, et. al., Legislative History of VAWA, T and U-Visas, Batteredd Spouse Waiver, and VAWA Confidentiality (Jan. 5, 2023) https://niwaplibrary.wcl.american.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/VAWA_Leg-History_Final.pdf
Victims of Criminal Activity: U Nonimmigrant Status, Mar. 20, 2023,
 T nonimmigrant status is a temporary immigration benefit that enables certain victims of a severe form of trafficking in persons to remain in the United States for an initial period of up to 4 years if they have complied with any reasonable request for assistance from law enforcement in the detection, investigation, or prosecution of human trafficking or qualify for an exemption or exception. T nonimmigrant status is also available to certain qualifying family members of trafficking victims. Id.
U Visa Law Enforcement Resource Guide, 2019, https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/20_1228_uscis_u-visa-law-enforcement-resource-guide.pdf