Barbara Graham, director of legal services for Catholic Charities meets with a client in mid-June in her office at St. Patrick Parish, Milwaukee. Graham and Jim Brennan, Catholic Charities interim executive director, spoke earlier this year before the Wisconsin Supreme Court in support of a petition calling for the redefinition of the practice of law. Their concerns stemmed from the growing problem of “notarios” who offer legal services to primarily Spanish-speaking immigrants, but are not adept in the practice of law. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)

When Fr. Joe Lubrano, the vocation director for the Society the Divine Savior, recognized that a couple of his seminarians were out of legal resident status, he turned to attorneys. Unfortunately, he quickly realized how fast the costs could mount and looked for a new option.

“I was given a tip from a diocesan priest friend who told me about a woman who was a paralegal in his parish who supposedly knew her way around the legal system and could help me cut costs,” Lubrano said in a presentation. “So I trustingly called and went to see her and was told that I and the young men I was working with had nothing to worry about.”

After filling out paperwork and following her directions Fr. Lubrano felt a sense of relief and hope for his new Salvatorian brothers. However, following her instructions jeopardized the future of the new seminarians.

Fr. Lubrano said he abandoned this woman’s service when she stopped returning his calls and refused to return documentation he had provided.

Homeland Security comes calling

“I was working hard at finding someone to help me and the young people I was working with,” said Fr. Lubrano. “However, before I could move forward the Department of Homeland Security called me about one of the young men. Homeland Security called me because after they Googled his name, his picture popped up on the Salvatorian Web site.”

Fr. Lubrano and the young seminarian were called into Milwaukee’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office and were required to visit the immigration court in Chicago twice.

“I saw how the undocumented are treated. They were not treated with dignity but herded around like animals with harsh words,” said Fr. Lubrano.

Notwithstanding a kind immigration judge, the seminarian was given two options: voluntary leave or deportation. The seminarian left the country peacefully and may not re-enter the United States for another 10 years.

“It has been three years since my friend left the U.S. He has seven more years to wait before he can apply to return legally to the U.S.,” said Fr. Lubrano. “However, at this time there are no guarantees.”

Bar calls for redefinition of law

Cases like this prompted the State Bar of Wisconsin to petition for the redefinition of the practice of law. On March 8, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin held its fourth administrative conference in the past two years and voted unanimously to support the working draft of the petition.

On June 1, the Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously adopted an amended version of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s petition which details the rights of a licensed attorney to practice law, which directly addresses the problems of so-called “notarios” who offer legal services to primarily Spanish-speaking immigrants, yet an effective date and enforcement procedures are yet to be determined.

Supporters of the petition are concerned with the definition of the practice of law in relation to consumer protection and propose the creation of a new administrative system to enforce the new definition.

“A tendency that we’ve seen over the years is that other professionals, non-lawyers or even non-professionals are trying to do things that lawyers have historically done,” said Adam Korbitz, Government Relations Coordinator and Wisconsin attorney.

This is what happens to “people from another culture where a notario is something like a lawyer,” said Korbitz. “They see the term being used in the U.S. and they assume it’s something equivalent.”

Catholic Charities’ attorneys support petition

This issue, even with recently passed statues to criminalize notario activity, still exists, and is why two Catholic Charities attorneys supported the petition at the Supreme Court hearing.

Jim Brennan, Catholic Charities’ interim executive director, and Barb Graham, the agency’s director of legal services for immigrants, stood behind the petition on behalf of Milwaukee’s and Wisconsin’s immigrant population.

“We chose this as an opportunity and obligation for us to speak out on behalf of the immigrants we’ve seen whose families have been done irrepressible harm by the notarios,” said Brennan.

Fr. Lubrano said the advice of the woman he worked with often had “the disastrous result of deportation leaving husbands, wives and children separated from one another.”

The problem of notarios comes from the two main types of judicial jurisdiction in the Americas: civil law jurisdictions, which originated in Spain and France and are used in much of Central and South America, and common law jurisdictions, which originated in Great Britain and are used in the United States.

‘Notario’ means super lawyer

The issue many Milwaukee immigrants face is recognizing the difference between the U.S. legal system and that of their native countries. Unlike the United States, in Mexico and many parts of Latin America the term “notario” signifies a super lawyer, according to Brennan.

“In Spain, for example, lawyers have four years of legal training,” said Brennan. “But to become a notario, the lawyer with four years of training has to go under a very rigorous test which between 90-95 percent of people fail.”

Passing this exam puts the notario in very high esteem and he or she is often sought out in cases of extreme importance, such as a transaction of a lot of money, or in many immigrants’ case, becoming legal, Brennan said. Unfortunately, the United States does not have a legal representative equivalent to the notario. The closest literal translation of the word is a notary public. But the position of notario is very different, requires minimal schooling and, in most cases, is someone unable to correctly file immigration documents.

“If you have an eighth grade education and you have not been convicted of a felony you can become a notary public,” said Brennan. “Basically you are authorized to give an oath, notarize documents, and peoples’ signatures on documents.”

Lives destroyed by notarios

Catholic Charities Legal Services for Immigrants receives about two cases a week of people whose lives are being destroyed by the work of notary publics posing as notarios.

Brennan and Graham said immigrants that are interested in becoming legal residents have the term notario in mind and often encounter misleading signs advertising notarios’ immigration legal services. The notarios begin selecting and filing paperwork for the client, often starting the process incorrectly.

“They will send and prepare applications, real applications,” said Graham. “Anyone can download them, but they don’t know what they are doing.”

Brennan, an attorney, agreed, saying immigration law is the most complex area of the American legal system.

Applying for legal residence requires a very detailed personal history, family history, employment history and, at times,, can require an interview with finger prints and a face scan, said Brennan. As soon as paperwork is filed, the immigrant, hoping to become a legal resident, gives all of his or her personal information to the government.

“If you file something you don’t qualify for, you are immediately put on the deportation list,” said Graham. “They know where you live and where your relatives are.”

Damage often cannot be undone

Catholic Charities provides about 1,000 free consultations per year by lawyers, paralegals, law students, and pro-bono services, but it is close to impossible to reverse the harm caused by uneducated notarios – something even the best lawyers can’t do, according to Brennan.

“Our goal is to get people properly advised and help those that we can,” he said. “Unfortunately we have to tell many people that immigration law doesn’t provide them with a remedy because of the past advice they took from a notario. Many are on the permanent removal list; they can be subject to 10 years of exclusion.”

Due to the high volume of cases and drastic consequences, Catholic Charities was compelled to speak on behalf of the suffering immigrants before the Wisconsin Supreme Court when the petition was on the table.

Graham said that, in the past, she wrote letters to the notarios in an attempt to explain the harm they were causing. They responded it was necessary to continue with the notario business in order to [financially] survive.

“They aren’t all doing it out of money,” said Graham. “Some notarios are attached to parishes or are just trying to help. But it doesn’t matter because they are doing harm they can’t undo. It may make it less bad, but it still doesn’t undo the harm.”

With the passage of the petition the Supreme Court is one step closer to halting the hazardous behavior of notarios.

As Fr. Lubrano remembers and keeps in touch with his friend, he, too, hopes that the government can arrive at some conclusion.

“I want them [the notarios] to stop. Stop completely, stop taking people’s money, stop giving them false information,” Fr. Lubrano said. “Just stop.”

Facts on the petition

Petition history:
2003: the State Bar petitioned for a committee to define the practice of law, but is dismissed in 2004
2004: the State Bar created the Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL) Committee
2007: the State Bar filed a petition to support the Legal Services Consumer Protection Act
December 2007: the Wisconsin Supreme Court held its first public hearing
March 2008: the court held an administrative conference on the petition, but does not choose to accept it
October 2008: the State Bar amended the petition
March 8, 2010: the court held a public hearing and administrative conference on the petition and votes unanimously to accept the petition
April 27 and May 11, 2010: the court held hearings to discuss specific details of the petition including the exemption list, enforcement and cost
June 1, 2010: the court unanimously adopted an amended version of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s petition detailing the rights of a licensed attorney to practice law

What did the UPL petition propose?
It asked for a new, clearer, definition of “the practice of law.” This means that the Supreme Court will change what is considered the practice of law in order to protect consumers. For example, deeds that are drafted by title insurance companies, or the immigration filing done by notarios who are unauthorized and uninformed on the correct means of filling out such documents.

Although there are currently consequences in place for these offenses, it is hard to prosecute due to the ambiguity of the law. Jim Brennan, interim director for Catholic Charities, said district attorneys often decline to charge because the law is too broad.

The UPL petition calls for a system to regulate and in some situations police the unauthorized practice of law. It requests the Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR) to employ a staff member to oversee complaints and suggest sanctions.

If you are looking for immigration help:
Contact Catholic Charities’ immigration assistance. They can provide you – in English or Spanish – with advice and assist in filling out the necessary paperwork for continuing a legal status in the United States. Their offices are located at 731 W. Washington St., Milwaukee. Call (414) 643-8570 for more information.