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September 15, 2014

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Fraudulent legal services costly in multiple ways to immigrants

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Sam Morris

Immigrant Cesar Silva talks about his difficulties in obtaining legal papers Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012.

Cesar Silva saw the advertisement and was ready to pay whatever was asked. To him, a legal status was priceless.

Silva came to the United States from Durango, Mexico, in 1989, driven by what he described as a common motivation.

“I wanted to get ahead, to improve our situation,” the 52-year-old father of two said. “Most of all I wanted to give my kids better opportunities.”

Then, in 1996, he saw an ad from an immigration legal services agency saying it secured work permits and legal residency for immigrants.

At the agency, the person helping Silva called over another client. The client showed Silva a work permit and explained how the agency helped him get it in just a few months. Silva, thinking he was on his way to legal status, was delighted.

The agency, however, never helped Silva. After taking roughly $8,000 from him, it only had made it harder for him to eventually obtain a legal status.

“There are tons and tons of cases out there,” said state Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas, who is also Silva’s attorney. “People go in and pay thousands and thousands of dollars, and either poor work is done or no work is done at all. ... It’s really a community that is largely preyed upon. These are people who are primarily medium- and low-income, not well educated, and they come from a trusting culture. There is also a lack of access to Spanish-speaking attorneys.”

Wherever there are significant immigrant populations, there are people trying to take advantage of them with various scams, authorities say. In some cases, people who have no license to practice law misrepresent their credentials, then file paperwork stating their clients are representing themselves. Other times they may take a client’s money and do not file anything, all the better for not attracting scrutiny from the authorities. In other cases, such as Silva’s, scam artists use their knowledge of the convoluted immigration system to give the appearance they are working on their client’s behalf.

Without Silva’s knowledge, the agency filed paperwork for him under an asylum provision that was in place for Nicaraguans. Once the paperwork was filed, immigration services issued a temporary work permit to Silva. Wheels were in motion, he thought, and he willingly paid more fees.

However, his application was bound to be denied as the company filed it with Silva’s Mexican birth certificate, Flores said.

The agency essentially announced Silva’s presence in the country to immigration enforcement and then on the paperwork indicated he was representing himself. Inevitably, Silva received a deportation notice.

“I brought the notice into them,” he said. “They just told me, ‘Oh, it’s fine. That’s all part of the process. We are working on your behalf.’”

•••

Silva readily blames his own ignorance of the law and what he was getting into for his predicament. But the reality is people just like Silva are getting duped every day by unscrupulous people who see a vulnerable population.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has seen immigration-services fraud as a nationwide problem for “a very long time,” said USCIS spokeswoman Marie Sebrechts. The federal agency, she said, has worked on public-service campaigns and distributing information through the media to prevent the scams.

About two years ago, USCIS recognized more needed to be done.

“We came to realize the scams come in so many different variations — on the Internet, face to face, etc. — that we needed to partner with other agencies and groups,” Sebrechts said. “Sometimes it is completely about a consumer issue. If they never file paperwork for the client, it’s really a consumer-fraud issue and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would have no files to investigate. So, we wanted to coordinate with investigators and prosecutors at the federal, state and local levels.”

The program was unveiled in June 2011. Sebrechts and other federal immigration employees were in Las Vegas earlier this year to discuss collaborations here and the expansion of the program. The program uses the slogan “The Wrong Help Can Hurt,” and both the Federal Trade Commission and Citizenship and Immigration Services have set up websites to educate the public on immigration scams.

•••

Peter Ashman, an immigration attorney in Las Vegas for 27 years and former chair of the Las Vegas chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says he gets two to three cases per month involving people who come to him after being misled by another person. Ashman said those perpetrating the fraud frequently escape consequences; clients, he said, can be reluctant to report fraud, and it can be difficult to get people to focus on the rights of immigrants here illegally.

“For some reason it has not been that big of a priority at either the state or county level,” Ashman said, adding that recently appointed Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson has expressed an interest in meeting with the local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association to discuss the issue.

The State Bar’s Office of Bar Counsel has set up a program to pursue investigations into the unlicensed practice of law since 2000, assistant bar counsel Phil Pattee said.

“We have been doing that for years, but what a lot of people don’t know is if you are licensed in another state to practice law, you can do immigration law here,” Pattee said. “Now, you are subject to our laws, of course, but you don’t have to sit for the bar.”

Immigrant advocates say a two-fold approach is needed: getting the message out to people to be wary of offers for immigration services and more vigorous enforcement when a fraudulent business is uncovered.

Some of the fraud comes from people advertising as “notarios,” who take advantage of cultural differences between the United States and Latin America.

“In Mexico, a notario is a lawyer. In Peru, a notario is a malpractice lawyer,” said state Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas. “That was the problem with using the word notario. In other countries they can practice law, but here they can only be a witness to signatures and a few other things.”

The issue was of concern to Denis, and a few years ago the Legislature passed new laws governing notarios and how they advertise.

Yet, the issue has not gone away.

“It’s still a problem, and I would say it hasn’t changed at all or even has gotten worse in the last few years,” Ashman said.

•••

Silva, meanwhile, went on with his life. There is a backlog of Mexican visa applications dating to the mid 1990s, and members of the Silva family thought they simply had to wait for Silva’s case to be reviewed. He was given a Social Security number with his temporary work permit, and he worked as a supervisor at a landscaping company.

“I paid my taxes,” he said. “I’ve never been arrested. I’ve never even gotten a traffic ticket in 23 years here. I thought we had done things right.”

In September, as Silva left his home, Immigration and Customs Enforcement showed up. He was arrested for the outstanding deportation order from a decade earlier that had never been executed by the authorities nor dealt with by the agency he had used. The agency had exhausted all of Silva’s potential appeals years earlier in its effort to bilk him for as much as possible.

Silva and his attorney have declined to name the immigration service Silva used because a complaint has been filed with the State Board, and they do not want to jeopardize the investigation.

Pattee said the Office of Bar Counsel had received a complaint in regards to Silva’s case and there is an active investigation into the company, but he could not comment further.

Silva spent a week in jail, but thanks to community support, including a protest and a petition delivered to the local ICE office, Silva was given a stay. Flores argued that Silva was the perfect example of a case deserving prosecutorial discretion, a directive that came down from the Obama administration last year for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to prioritize deportation cases involving criminals. Silva was released and, while ICE reviewed his case, his deportation was scheduled for March 19.

On Wednesday, the Silva family let out its collective breath. Immigration and Customs Enforcement informed Flores that Silva could stay in the country and his case would be reviewed again one year from now.

The letter granting the stay cited humanitarian reasons: Silva is the sole provider for his family and the fact that he is currently working with an attorney to resolve his immigration status.

Still, prosecutorial discretion does not mean the file is permanently closed, only that federal authorities are choosing to spend their resources on higher-priority cases at this moment. Silva still has no legal status and is in immigration “limbo,” Flores said.

•••

Silva wanted a legal status in 1996 and still does, referring to it simply as “the dream.”

“I know I made a mistake. I broke the law in coming here,” Silva said. “But I’ve tried to do the right thing, and now I live with this over my head every day. I know these people stole money from many people, and they could do it because they know we are desperate for help. I think it’s the dream of every immigrant to get papers. I’ve been here 23 years now. I’ve never returned to Mexico once, not even when my mother died and my father died.”

Silva has no recourse available to him right now, Flores said. His son, who was born here and is a citizen, will turn 21 in three years and would be able to sponsor his father then.

To help spread the word about immigration scams and cases like Silva’s, Flores has helped organize an immigration town hall on March 29 at the Mexican Consulate, 823 S. Sixth St., where U.S. immigration officials will be on hand to answer questions.

“What makes this case all the more heartbreaking is that he voluntarily put himself into the immigration system wanting to do it the right way,” Flores said. “He wanted to avail himself of his legal options, and he didn’t have any. Now he is in the system and considered a higher priority than someone who has never had a deportation order. He was trying to do it the right way, and it ended up really hurting.”

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  1. We have a Capitalistic, for profit legal system. The most money gets the most attention. As with Citizens United, those with the most money can buy up the air time during elections and prevent discussion of the issues. The lower tax rates for the wealthy are spent on election contributions and wealth for control, not jobs.

    B.S. talks and working for a living walks. America has become a shopping mall for equality: those who can pay more get more equality. Good luck.

  2. "In some cases, people who have no license to practice law misrepresent their credentials, then file paperwork stating their clients are representing themselves. Other times they may take a client's money and do not file anything, all the better for not attracting scrutiny from the authorities. In other cases, such as Silva's, scam artists use their knowledge of the convoluted immigration system to give the appearance they are working on their client's behalf."

    Sounds like the scenario when you hire a local, licensed member of the Bar. I was surprised recently to learn 1) Nevada attorneys are not required to have malpractice insurance or bonds, and 2) the Bar won't take a complaint unless it's against one's own attorney.

    Foreclosure was the typical attorney scam -- I've talked to locals who paid from $3k to $8k to attorneys for foreclosure services then watched their hard-earned money disappear with nothing to show for it. And the Bar did nothing for them. So where's their recourse?

    "We have a Capitalistic, for profit legal system. The most money gets the most attention."

    SunJon -- put another way, justice is for sale.

    I think the root problem is common folk with common problems are increasingly faced with a government requiring experts to deal with it at every level. Part of that is the tendency of agencies to make dealing with them so complex even their practitioners can't readily figure out common queries, such as calculating child support. Add special interests into the mix, such as the Bar and other licensing boards, and the result is little more than job security as they line up for the public teat.

    Because our republic was Constituted for justice, liberty and due process, it's up to government to accommodate the people, not the other way around.

    "I heartily accept the motto, 'That government is best which governs least'; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically." -- Henry David Thoreau 1849 "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience"

  3. How about putting up a number to the Nevada State Bar? People can call the Nevada State Bar to:

    1. Confirm the person you are dealing with is licensed to practice law in Nevada.
    2. File a complaint against these notaries who target these communities and deceive these people.

    People should know that the unauthorized practice of law is a criminal offense. Whenever you are dealing with someone and paying them for a service - if they give you legal advise without being licensed in Nevada - you are paying someone to engage in criminal activity.

    NRS 7.285 Unlawful practice of law; criminal penalties;

  4. "People should know that the unauthorized practice of law is a criminal offense."

    unlv702 -- you're not paying attention. Attorneys are part of the problem, not the solution. And Nevada's UPL law is in direct conflict with parts of our state's Declaration of Rights, particularly Sections 1, 2, 8, 9, 15 and 20. As a "criminal offense" it rates about the same as the scheme for unregistered vehicles -- blatantly unConstitutional and utterly stupid laws.

    The point is access to justice. If government did it's job and respected its inherent limits as constituted, including the Bar, your members would not have the monopoly it currently enjoys. In my experience the faithfulness of the average Bar member to their oaths and the Rule of Law are utterly despicable. And if the average citizen had a clue how the quality is of our sitting judges, there would be the revolution Jefferson mentioned.

    "The legal system has also been wounded by lawyers who themselves no longer respect the rule of law ..... When lawyers cannot be trusted to observe the fair processes essential to maintaining the rule of law, how can we expect the public to respect the process?" -- the Honorable Edith Jones to Harvard's Federalist Club "American Legal System Is Corrupt Beyond Recognition, Judge Tells Harvard Law School" 2/28/03

  5. How does that old song go? "Let's kill all the lawyers, kill 'em tonite"? Something like that.

    Maybe not kill them, but certainly tighten accountability and drastically reduce their fees.

  6. "How does that old song go? "Let's kill all the lawyers, kill 'em tonite"? Something like that."

    davestovall -- more like a quote from Shakespeare.

    Think about it. Courts are one of our republic's three branches, the one charged with interpreting the law. About a century ago a private group, the Bar associations, started setting themselves up as gatekeepers to the law. You don't get justice unless you first pay them. Now with the state becoming predatory on us, the people it was Constituted to serve, and with Bar members infesting every level of government -- including making the laws forcing use of their services -- see what I mean about job security?

    For sure if We the people don't take back our rule of law, no one will.

    "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." -- Dick the Butcher in Shakespeare's "Henry The Sixth," Part 2 Act 4, scene 2

  7. KillerB---
    Don Henley (The Eagles) wrote, in "Get Over It": "The more I think about it, old Billy was right, let's kill all the lawyers, kill 'em tonight."

    I would assume that "old Billy" refers to William Shakespeare, but I was referrring to "that old song".

  8. "I would assume that "old Billy" refers to William Shakespeare, but I was referrring to "that old song"

    davestovall -- you're probably right. Shakespeare's works have been a staple of English literature for some 400 years. Since Henley was famous for awhile, he probably had his fill of shysters.

    Pity there wasn't more of a Discussion -- this is a vital topic for every one of us. And one I know well.

    "Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write." -- John Adams "A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law," from "The Works of John Adams" (1851) volume 3, page 462

  9. KillerB---
    It seems that we are both right about the "Kill the lawyers" references. More importantly, both Dick the Butcher and Don Henley were right in their sentiments about lawyers.

  10. Let me see if I have these facts straight. Came here 'illegally' in 1989, tried to file what is basically after-the-fact paperwork to stay here and obtain a work visa, found an unscrupulous lawyer in Vegas 'shock of shocks', and eventually got deported for being here illegally (as he admitted in his article). Shame on the bad attorneys, but you came here illegally. If you wanted a chance for a change, do what our parents did, apply and THEN immigrate. If you have a skill needed in the US you will be granted a work visa (or if you get sponsored by a local company). If you have no skill that sets you apart from the masses, what benefit is there to the US for allowing you to work here? People (non US Citizens) think the US has an obligation to let them live here. WE DO NOT. Follow the procedure, and become a naturalized citizen. If you don't like the rules, then maybe this is not the place for you.