President Barack Obama’s recent executive action on immigration could pave the way for several million undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. legally. And that has authorities bracing for a wave of scams targeting people seeking legal advice. Not only can immigrants lose thousands of dollars in such schemes, but they can also put themselves at greater risk of deportation.
Daniel Sharp says immigrants show up at his office all the time with stories of how they were fleeced by people passing themselves off as immigration attorneys or licensed consultants.
“It’s almost the perfect crime,” says Sharp.
Sharp is the legal director of the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles.
“When someone falls victim and then eventually realizes what’s happened, it can often be months or years from the time that they initially paid the non-attorney for the legal service,” says Sharp.
“And the percentage of people who actually come forward is minuscule compared to the number of people who actually fall victim to the problem.”
That’s why Sharp is trying to spread the word about such scams to people eager to apply for protection from deportation under Obama’s executive action at regular immigration workshops at the Central American Resource Center’s L.A. headquarters.
On a recent weeknight about 150 people packed into one of the center’s meeting rooms.
The presentation includes details of changes coming under executive action that could enable some undocumented immigrants, including those with children who are U.S. citizens, to remain in the U.S. legally.
There are also stark warnings about avoiding predatory attorneys and legal consultants who may take large sums of money for services that immigrants do not need and that may actually end up hurting their cases.
But for many immigrants, it's too late for warnings.
A Salvadoran woman named Maria, who lives in the city of Bell, says she and her husband lost more than $5,000 in savings to an L.A. nonprofit called Coalicion Latinoamericana Internacional. Maria asked that we not use her last name because of her legal status.
In glossy pamphlets and in splashy Spanish-language newspaper ads, the group claims to be a staunch advocate of immigrant rights and a savvy legal services provider.
Maria says the group’s director, Oswaldo Cabrera, promised to help her husband, Dore, a legal permanent resident, become a naturalized U.S. citizen and then help attain legal status for her.
“We began to give him money and money and money,” explains Maria in Spanish.
Maria says the couple was strung along for weeks with false promises, in a nightmare of bungled paperwork and immigration hearings.
“I was getting suspicious,” says Maria.
“But (Cabrera) threatened us, saying that he wasn’t to be played with because he was an attorney. And that if we didn’t play by his rules, he could have us deported.”
Maria says that when she tried to get the couple’s money back, Cabrera refused. Earlier this month, she and her husband sued.
Coalicion Latinoamericana Internacional operates out of a suite of cramped offices in an L.A. high-rise.
When I show up unannounced one afternoon, a handful of people are sitting on threadbare sofas in a reception area.
Cabrera interrupts a meeting with a couple of clients and invites me into his office. He claims to hold some kind of international license that allows him to dole out legal advice.
“Yeah, in the law profession,” says Cabrera.
When asked to provide that license, he can’t.
Cabrera also claims to run a nonprofit in good standing with the state of California. Not according to the California Secretary of State’s Office. It recently yanked Cabrera’s nonprofit status. When I present Cabrera with a page from the secretary’s website showing his suspension, he claims the information is wrong.
“No, no,” says Cabrera.
“This is stopped, this is no more,” he says.
Nor does Cabrera’s name or the name of his organization come up on a search of bonded immigration consultants at the secretary of state website.
A follow-up call to a California secretary of state representative confirms that Cabrera is not legally licensed to be operating as a paid legal consultant or attorney to immigrants.
As for the lawsuit brought against Cabrera by former clients Maria and her husband, Cabrera says he hasn't seen it and could not comment.
Another lawsuit filed last year by a different former client claims, among other things, that Cabrera abandoned the man on the eve of a deportation hearing -- promising and then failing to provide an attorney.
“It’s not true, it’s not true because the guy is living in this country,” says Cabrera. “It’s never deportation, never. This information is wrong. ”
According to the plaintiff’s attorney, the lawsuit is active and pending.
In addition to the lawsuits, Cabrera faces numerous complaints with the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs. But it’s unclear what action, if any, the office is taking against him.
Director Brian Stiger says the office is sending immigration services fraud warnings of its own via news conferences, workshops and other public outreach.
“If the deal is too good to be true, it is probably a scam,” says Stiger.
He says scammers will make impossible promises about Obama’s deportation relief, even though the application process won’t begin for months. Outlaw legal consultants can also charge exorbitant fees for things immigrants might be able to do themselves.
“There is no way to be first in line, there is no guarantee about an application being approved,” explains Stiger. “And many times these immigration consultants, certainly the fraudulent ones, are charging more money than it costs to apply.”
The L.A. City Attorney’s Office is also hosting a series of multi-lingual town halls in the coming weeks, where immigrants will be able to get help filling out forms for free from attorneys and licensed consultants.
L.A. immigration attorney Clemente Franco says many scammers have been in business for years and run fairly sophisticated operations.
“You have some organizations that actually have 10, 15 offices,” says Franco.
“They claim to be immigration rights activists, so it gives them this aura of credibility. When in a sense they are really wolves among the community.”
Wolves that thrive on the fact that their victims are often too afraid to come forward because of their legal status.
But Salvadoran immigrant Maria says she needed to speak out.
“So that other people don’t fall into the same trouble,” she says. “And that people will do a little more investigation, so that they don’t fall into the same trap.”