Self-proclaimed immigration attorney Yehlen Dorothea Brooks promised more than a dozen “clients” in the Valley she would protect them from deportation.
But Brooks wasn’t licensed to practice law — and at least 15 vulnerable immigrants fell victim to her false promises.
“Instead, (Brooks) collected fees from the victims ranging from $3,000 to over $16,000 and did little or no work on the victims’ behalf,” according to her 2017 plea agreement in San Joaquin County Superior Court.
“The victims trusted (Brooks) and in some instances, gave her their last dollar. (Brooks) took advantage of that trust and even threatened victims that if they did not continue to pay her, they would be deported.”
Organizations serving the Valley immigrant community and specifically Fresno County say many immigrants are being victimized by notaries public, immigration consultants and unlicensed individuals who are defrauding them, consequently placing those individuals in a worse legal situation.
Some victims have even been deported after being wrongfully advised by a person unqualified or unlicensed to provide immigration legal advice, advocates say.
Margarita Rocha, executive director at Centro La Familia, said action against such violators has been lacking. Meanwhile, people seeking services from those individuals, specifically notaries public, continue to take a “risk” with their own life.
Many in the immigrant community don’t understand a notary public in the U.S. is vastly different from a “notario publico” in Latin American countries and some European countries.
In the U.S., a notary public only witnesses signatures and translates forms, for example, but cannot fill out forms and act as an immigration specialist. But some of them operate beyond their scope of practice.
In Latin America, however, notario publicos have a level of education closer to an attorney.
Rocha’s organization has seen clients who’ve gone to notaries public for immigration matters. However, their paperwork wasn’t completed, the wrong form was used, the wrong information was included or the interview that provides critical information regarding an individual’s background to determine eligibility for immigration benefits wasn’t complete.
“Sometimes families end up being deportable and may never apply for any immigration relief because of some false information that was included in the form,” she said.
Until someone with power takes a tough stance to halt the wrongful practices, immigrants will continue to bear the consequences, Rocha said. “There’s nothing that I know that holds them accountable,” she said. “The best we can do is clean up the mess.”
Mario Rodriguez, also with Centro La Familia, said immigrants are being defrauded, and often investigations against notaries public are simply dropped. “They are rampant in our community,” he said. “It’s hurting our community, that’s what it’s doing.”
The California Secretary of State’s Office, which governs notaries public, wasn’t able to provide information on how many of these professionals in Fresno County specifically have been disciplined by the office. The office also governs immigration consultants. Registered notaries public are publicly listed by county.
There were a total of 265 “enforcement cases” statewide in fiscal year 2017-18, which include denials and revocations for a “disqualifying conviction,” failure to disclose and misconduct. That same year, there were an approximate 35 statewide cases for “misconduct” that were taken out of the total enforcement number.
A denial is when the Secretary of State’s Office rejects an application, and a revocation means the office took away their commission.
The 35 cases include those that are “specifically investigated” by the Secretary of State’s Office based on complaints received from the public or information received by various public entities, like law enforcement or a district attorney’s office, according to the office’s response.
In fiscal year 2016-17, the office investigated 69 misconduct cases statewide, 53 in fiscal year 2015-16, 66 in fiscal year 2014-15, and 58 in fiscal year 2013-14.
Victims are fearful
Steve E. Wright, assistant district attorney at the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office, said since 2015, no cases of suspected notary public fraud have been referred to the District Attorney’s Office.
Rocha said when her organization recommends clients to file a complaint with the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office, they are reluctant to do so because of fear, due to their citizenship status.
“They don’t go that route, so that’s been on of the hindrances of the impact,” she said.
The county District Attorney’s Office, however, does have two cases pending that involve immigration consultants, and were referred by the California State Bar for charges of “practicing law without a license,” Wright said.
“Because those cases are still being investigated and reviewed, I cannot share any specifics about those cases,” he said.
Sam Mahood, spokesperson with the Secretary of State’s Office, said his office only has an administrative function when it comes to commissioning notaries public and immigration consultants. Law enforcement agencies are responsible for investigating and prosecuting crimes committed by these professionals.
“If an immigration consultant or notary public is convicted of a disqualifying crime, the Secretary of State takes administrative actions to cancel an immigration consultant’s registration, or to revoke a notary public’s commission,” Mahood said. “Our office takes steps — within our authority in the law — to protect customers and remind notaries and immigration consultants of their responsibilities.”
Mahood said if any resident in California believes a notary public is not abiding by the law, complaints can be submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office. The office investigates complaints related to notaries’ responsibilities under the law related to their commission.
“Our office can take administrative action — fining and revoking the notary public’s commission,” Mahood said.
This issue not only affects Latino immigrants, but also the Southeast Asian community.
Lucky Siphongsay, program manager with Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, said he himself hasn’t encountered a client who has fallen victim to legal immigration fraud, but he has heard the Southeast Asian community is faced with this issue.
“The Southeast Asian community is so vulnerable,” he said. “They do take advantage of these folks ... I’ve heard of stories before of people taking certain amount of money for legal services, promising them things that are not confirmed through a professional lawyer or someone who actually knows what they are doing.”
State bar taking on the issue
Brooks was disbarred by the Kansas State Bar in 2015, but continued a fraudulent law practice in Stockton, according to her plea agreement. She plead to 15 counts of felony grand theft in December 2017 for the victims she scammed in San Joaquin County.
Jonah Lamb, spokesman for the California State Bar, said the issue of unauthorized practice of law “regarding immigrants, including notario fraud, is taken very seriously by the State Bar and the fight against it has been prioritized recently.”
“Specifically, a new team of 14 people was created in 2016 to investigate and prosecute such cases,” he said.
The State Bar has recently taken action on unauthorized practice of law cases targeting immigrants, including Brooks’ case, in which it was able to “reclaim” client files earlier this year.
The State Bar so far this year has received one immigration-related unauthorized practice of law complaint for Fresno County. In 2017, it referred more than 315 non-attorney unauthorized practice of law cases to law enforcement.
In 2017, the State Bar had 260 open attorney-related cases, and it received 524 immigration-related attorney complaints that same year, Lamb said. Also in 2017, the State Bar received 158 non unauthorized practice of law immigration complaints, and had 59 active cases.
A piece of legislation that would have addressed the issue, at least with immigration consultants, failed to pass the state Senate in August.
Noe Paramo, legislative advocate at the California Legal Rural Assistance Foundation, said Assembly Bill 638 would have essentially repealed the state statue that allows immigration consultants to practice in California. Under current state law, anybody can become an immigration consultant by registering with the Secretary of State’s Office, placing a $100,000 bond and passing a background check.
They are not required to get training and maintain a certain level of skill. AB 638 would have given those consultants a path to work under a nonprofit that’s accredited by the Department of Justice for immigration representation purposes or under a licensed attorney.
“The model that exists now has run its course,” he said. “It’s outdated.”
Paramo said the bill failed due to push back from immigration consultants, confusion on what the bill intended to do, and a “very divided Senate on the bill.”
There was a “very tense debate on the Senate floor around the bill. Our Latino elected officials ... on the floor ... spoke in support and others against,” he said. “Until the next session and further legislation is introduced to address that, they’ll continue to practice, and the community needs to be aware of that.”
California needs to catch up to other models that are more stringent for these professions, Paramo said.
“We need people who are accredited from the Department of Justice,” he said. “That’s what we need to do. Right now, in California, we don’t have that. We need to work to banning the immigration consultants program as we know it.”