Legal consultants prey on California immigrants across state
By John Roemer
Special to the Bar Journal
Immigrants often have a tough time in the U.S., but when
unscrupulous “consultants,” “advisers” and “notarios” prey on newcomers who don't understand English well, immigrants can lose their money – and jeopardize their
prospects of gaining documented status.
Exhibit A: Lacayo & Associates in San Francisco’s
Mission District. Leonard J. Lacayo is not a lawyer, but you’d never know it
from his website. It claims that as a “highly respected … immigration
consultant,” Lacayo offers “legal services” and has “successfully legalized
over 40,000 immigrants, and which presently represents over 9,000 families in
ongoing legalization procedures.” Lacayo, his home page claims, “operates in
principles of professionalism.”
Exhibit B: Gloria Dora Saucedo, a San Fernando Valley woman
who ran immigration consultancy Hermandad Mexicana Transnacional on Van Nuys
Boulevard and who pleaded guilty in August to one count of unauthorized
practice of law for performing unlicensed paralegal services that allegedly
adversely affected the immigration status of some clients, according to Los
Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer. A restitution hearing was set in October for
seven of Saucedo’s clients.
The plague of fraudsters posing as lawyers or suggesting they
are licensed attorneys to scam immigrants is widespread, experts said.
The State Bar’s Office of Chief Trial Counsel is focused on
getting complaints about this kind of fraud into the hands of law enforcement
earlier. In order to speed up the process, the bar is no longer waiting until
its investigations are complete to refer complaints about the unauthorized
practice of law (UPL) to law enforcement, said Interim Chief Trial Counsel
Gregory Dresser. So far in 2016 the State Bar has received about 108 complaints about UPL involving immigration law.
In August, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis J. Herrera
sued Lacayo and what Herrera called his “predatory” business for breaking state
laws against false advertising, unfair competition and for violation of the
Immigration Consultant Act, a state law enacted in 1987 and strengthened in
1997. The law gives prosecutors ammunition in the seemingly endless battle
against those who would victimize people seeking asylum, green cards or other
forms of legal status. Herrara’s office thanked the bar and others for their
assistance in the Lacayo case.
Herrera’s office posted the complaint in both English and
Spanish and offered victims who want to try to undo the damage a contact number
at the Bar Association of San
Francisco’s lawyer referral service. By early October about 10 calls had come
in from victims or their families, according to a BASF spokeswoman.
When Gloria Alicia Batres Ramos explained to Lacayo’s staff
that she had experienced severe domestic violence by her husband in El Salvador
and was seeking immigration help in the U.S., a secretary told
her it would cost $5,000. Batres Ramos borrowed money and paid part of the fee.
She believed Lacayo was a lawyer “because of the language on the side of the
building,” she said in a sworn declaration, and due to the way he talked and
the diplomas on his wall.
That was in 2011. Lacayo told Batres Ramos she was eligible
for a U visa or asylum or both, and asked for more money. Over the next two
years her calls to the office went unanswered or resulted in hang-ups. No visa
ever came. In 2014, she learned from a La Raza Centro Legal lawyer that she was
being scammed and that Lacayo was not a lawyer. She also learned that Lacayo
had filed no paperwork on her behalf. With another lawyer’s help, she won
asylum in December 2015.
Batres Ramos is one about a dozen of Lacayo’s clients who
signed sworn declarations describing their experience and supporting Herrera’s
call for a preliminary injunction to halt the fraud. A judge granted a
preliminary injunction in early October. If the suit succeeds, Lacayo could be
liable for civil penalties of up to $2,500 for each violation and could be
forced to pay restitution to his former “clients.”
“For far too long, Lacayo and his associates preyed on
immigrants who seek legal assistance in their efforts to navigate through the complex
immigration system and work on achieving the American dream,” Herrera said in a
media statement. Referring to Lacayo and his mother, Ada Lacayo, he added,
“Through this lawsuit I hope to bring the Lacayos to justice for their
exploitation of immigrants in San Francisco and to prevent any other immigrants
from becoming victims of their fraudulent operation.” The Lacayos have been
operating for 30 years, since 1986. Leo Lacayo is a notary public but not
licensed to practice law nor registered with the state as an immigration
consultant, Herrera said.
In an email, Lacayo denied ever having held himself out as
an attorney and contended that the charges against him are motivated by his
“I am an advocate for immigrants and immigration reform,” he
wrote, asserting that he no longer acts as a consultant. “Mr. Herrera’s lawsuit
contains so much nonsense that Lacayo & Associates has let its bond expire
and is out of the immigration consulting business. … Why then are we signaled
[sic] out and put out of business by Dennis Herrera? Very simple. It’s a
corrupt use of political power. Why? Because I have been an outspoken supporter
of Mr. Trump’s quest for the presidency.”
Natalie M. Orr, the deputy city attorney pursuing the case
against Lacayo, said the fallout from bad immigration advice can be devastating.
“Fraudulent immigration providers can cause serious and
permanent harm. If they submit a poorly prepared asylum application on behalf
of an immigrant and it is denied, the immigrant can end up in proceedings
facing deportation. In other cases, they charge fees and tell immigrants they
have submitted applications that were never actually submitted” she said. “People
often don’t even realize they have been defrauded until years later. These
schemes are deliberately designed to target and exploit an already vulnerable
In addition to referring UPL cases to law enforcement, the State
Bar has authority to intervene when a business advertises using words, like
“notario” or “notario public,” that falsely imply the business employs
attorneys licensed to practice in California. In April, the bar obtained an
injunction and $5,000 in penalties in Los Angeles County Superior Court against
a business that advertised the services of a “notario” even though there were
no licensed lawyers on staff. The owners of Salvadorean Legal Services on
Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles agreed to the injunction.
Bill Ong Hing, an immigration law authority at the
University of San Francisco School of Law and the founder of the Immigrant
Legal Resource Center, said scams on the vulnerable are not only endemic, but
“This problem has been going on since the beginning of time,
and it was in full stride when I started practice in the 1970s. There have
always been notorious lawyers and consultants who were absolute crooks,” Hing
said. “And it’s not limited to the Spanish-speaking community; there’s a
parallel version of every scam happening in Chinatown. I hear of people getting
ripped off all the time, and it is at least as bad now as it ever was.”
Things are just as bad in Southern California’s large
immigrant communities, according to Emily L. Robinson of Loyola Law School’s
Home Base Immigration Clinic.
“It’s pretty horrible,” she said, mentioning a Jesuit church
and school in East Los Angeles. “We work with Dolores Mission Parish, and every
week we hold free consultations at the church. We see about 70 people a week
asking about their experiences with fraud.”
That has totaled as many as 7,500 since the clinic opened in
2012, Robinson said. Robinson said her clinic is unable to keep up.
“I log the information and try to keep track of the
different players,” she said, referring to the consultants and notaries and
agents who pass out cards and operate storefront enterprises whose addresses
shift frequently. “People pay to get on nonexistent waiting lists” for the
Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, known as DAPA,
she said. But the consultants don’t mention that courts blocked the program in
“We tell them, this is unauthorized practiced of law, please
be aware. There are heartbreaking stories,” she said.
The problem extends into rural California. "Whenever there's any hint of immigration reform nationally, the bogus notarios come out of the woodwork both in the cities and out here in the countryside," said Stephen A. Rosenbaum, the Stockton-based regional director of advocacy for California Rural Legal Assistance, which aids low income farmworker and migrant communities.
"Anyone with uncertain status is going to be susceptible, and the line between fake notarios and bona fide immigration consultants is often hazy. We know the State Bar has been looking at this issue and consulting with district attorneys at the county level. The problem in rural California is really no different from that in the cities."
Hing, Robinson and others working with immigrants applauded
city attorneys Herrera and Feuer for bringing charges against people like
Lacayo and Saucedo, but they know the need is great.
Hing called for more criminal prosecutions, not just civil
actions. Although it may seem like a huge loss, the sad irony is that those who
pay a consultant who never files any paperwork are the lucky ones, even if they
have to start all over again, Robinson said.
“If the consultant files fraudulent documents, then the immigrant
is out the money and can never get status,” she said.
John Roemer is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer
who has covered the California legal community for more than 20 years.