Share this on Twitter Share this on Facebook Share this on Linked In Share this by Email
MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Immigration fraud tops priority list for next bar president

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

Luis Rodriguez

Luis J. Rodriguez won’t be sworn in until October, but he is already hitting the ground running on one of the key issues he will be focused on as State Bar president – preventing immigration fraud by attorneys.

Rodriguez joined President Patrick M. Kelly and CEO/Executive Director Joseph Dunn last month for a presentation to the Board of Trustees about the bar’s early-stage efforts. With the potential for comprehensive federal immigration reform on the horizon, there are already reports of people trying to take advantage of vulnerable clients, they said.

“Attorneys are already seeking to take fees and make promises, even though no legislation has passed yet,” Kelly said.

“It’s out there and it’s bold, and there’s no shame about what’s being done,” Rodriguez said of the advertisements that are being aimed at undocumented immigrants.

After the July 18 presentation, the board Operations Committee authorized bar leaders to work with immigration lawyers and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who is sponsoring legislation at the state level that is designed to prevent immigration fraud by attorneys (AB 1159).

Gonzalez, a labor leader and inactive member of the bar, spoke about the desperation of immigrants like her father, a Spanish-speaking farmworker with little formal education.

“They are desperate to do anything in their power to become legalized,” she said. “This is a promise of completely changing yours and your next generation’s lives.”

Dunn said that the bar’s ongoing work with law enforcement agencies, along with the surge in loan modification fraud complaints during the housing crisis, point to the need to do something now instead of waiting for clients to complain.

Dunn described the potential costs to the discipline system as staggering. The Client Security Fund, which is funded through attorneys’ annual fees, reimburses clients for thefts by their lawyers. If even a fraction of the estimated 3 million undocumented immigrants in California suffer losses that are eligible for reimbursement by the fund, rough estimates show it could add up to $300 million, he said.

“California is at the vanguard of this because we have more undocumented immigrants here than anywhere else,” said Trustee Loren Kieve, a member of the ABA Commission on Immigration.

André Birotte, U.S. attorney for the Central District, told the board that he’s concerned there won’t be enough law enforcement resources to combat an increase in non-lawyers scamming the vulnerable population, especially if federal sequestration budget cuts continue.

The details of the legislation are still being developed, but ideas include placing funds for initial application services in a trust account, putting retainer agreements in writing in the client’s native language and requiring malpractice coverage or a bond. Also, lawyers who have accepted money under the pretense of reform could have to refund the money to clients until federal reform is signed into law.

Trustee David A. Torres asked for assurances that the concerns of solo practitioners will be heard in the legislative process.

Rodriguez, the son of Mexican immigrant parents, said bar officials will listen to all reasonable requests to ensure that the effort does not have the unintended consequence of discouraging scrupulous practitioners. But he made it clear that doing nothing is not an option.

“This is not the place or the time to sit back and hope things fix themselves,” he said.

In a special board meeting to elect officers July 19, Rodriguez, 46, of Los Angeles, ran unopposed for president.

Craig Holden, 43, a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP of Los Angeles, was elected vice president for 2013-14. Heather Linn Rosing, 41, of Klinedinst PC in San Diego was elected treasurer.

The officers will be sworn in at the State Bar’s Annual Meeting in October in San Jose.