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August 3, 2015

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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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