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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Legal consultants prey on California immigrants across state

By John Roemer
Special to the Bar Journal

Immigration photoImmigrants 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.”

See consumer resources for immigrants

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 political beliefs.

“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 population.”

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 decades old.

“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 February 2015.

“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.