When criminal defendants can’t afford to pay for a lawyer, the court will appoint them one for free. But not all defendants have that right. If you’re called to immigration court, for example, you have to hire a private attorney. If you can’t afford one, you’re on your own. Many agencies provide free legal services to immigrants in these situations, but these agencies are overwhelmed. And even immigrants who can afford an attorney have to be careful who they hire. Some unlicensed practitioners prey on unsuspecting immigrants to make easy money.
NOTE TO READERS: Only the first names of names of undocumented immigrants are used in this story.
It’s evening in San Francisco’s Mission District. More than a dozen Latin-American immigrants are sitting around a big table talking about immigration reform. This is a monthly meeting of the community group, Comite de Padres Unidos—“Parents United."
One of the participants, Rosa, is wearing a gold cross, and her salt-and-pepper hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail. She points out that illegal immigration is technically a civil violation, not a criminal offense.
It’s a topic she knows something about. In 1989, Rosa and her husband illegally crossed the border from Mexico. They made a life in the Bay Area, and they’re raising four children here. For years, they managed to avoid encounters with immigration authorities. But now they’re facing a deportation order. The trouble began 13 years ago, when they went to a lawyer who claimed he could help them legalize their status.
"This lawyer was recommended by other people. But we never looked into whether they actually got residency," says Rosa.
The lawyer’s name was Walter Pineda. Rosa says as soon as they found out about him, she and her husband went to his office in Redwood City, hoping he could help them. What they didn’t realize was that it’s rare to gain legal status without a sponsoring relative or employer – which they didn’t have. But Rosa says Pineda assured them they would succeed.
"He said if you have been here for 10 years, you don’t have a criminal record, and you have children who were born here, you’ll get your residency within one year," Rosa explains.
Rosa says she and her husband paid Pineda $10 thousand to do the paperwork for them and their oldest daughter, the only one of their children who is not a U.S. citizen. Even though the family was from Mexico – a country where few people flee political or religious persecution – Pineda told them to file asylum applications. But when they were summoned to immigration court, things started to go wrong.
"We went to court, but the lawyer never showed up, he just sent his assistant. And the assistant only spoke English, not Spanish," says Rosa.
And since they weren’t really fleeing persecution in Mexico, their asylum claim was denied. The judge started the deportation process. Rosa says Pineda tried to argue that the family should be allowed to stay, but that failed too.
Afterwards, Rosa says, Pineda told her that for another fee – on top of the $10 thousand – he would appeal the case. At that point Rosa and her husband refused. They wanted out. But the damage was done.
Rosa says "All the lawyer did was just put us in deportation proceedings."
In fact, court records suggest that was Pineda’s plan: to put his clients in deportation proceedings on purpose and then try to argue for the cancellation of their deportation. But it’s a strategy that rarely works.
"It is really a bait-and-switch operation, where they get applicants to file the asylum application, which then triggers deportation proceedings," says Dan Torres, an attorney with Immigrant Legal Resource Center. Torres says that what happened to Rosa’s family is a familiar ploy. "The applicants are charged thousands of dollars just to lose at the end of the day. And that is really the tragedy here."
Of course, anyone in this country illegally can be deported. But Rosa and her husband hired Pineda because they wanted to legitimize their status here. If Pineda had been upfront about his risky strategy, Rosa says, she wouldn’t have gone along with his plan.
"A lawyer is supposed to defend people, advocate for people, not try to rob them.," says Rosa.
Rosa’s friends who recommended Pineda have already been deported – and they’re not the only ones. The scam Pineda used was once so common that it has its own name: the 10-year benefit scam. That particular maneuver is less prevalent these days, but new scams are constantly emerging. Nora Privitera, another attorney from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, says with immigration reform on the national agenda, the problem is likely to increase.
"As soon as something hits the news, these people are out there recruiting victims. We have seen a lot of scams sign up for the new amnesty, get yourself on the waiting list, pay us, you know $3,000 to get on the waiting list, and of course there is no new amnesty," says Privitera.
In many ways, Privitera says, immigrants are easy prey for those who want to make a quick buck.
"It’s really easy for them to be fooled. They don’t understand the applications; they don’t know what is said. And a lot of times they are asked to sign things that they haven’t a clue what it is," Privitera explains.
Because immigrant clients are so vulnerable, immigration law is known for attracting a higher proportion of unethical practitioners, says John Steele, an expert in legal ethics who has taught at Stanford and UC Berkeley.
"Although there’s a lot of terrific immigration lawyers, it is probably the single field where you hear the most complaints about frauds, shoddy lawyering and even non-lawyers supposedly practicing the law," says Steels.
In the 25 years that Walter Pineda was practicing law in the state, dozens of his clients filed complaints about him with the California State Bar. After an investigation, the bar accused him of a “despicable and far-reaching pattern of misconduct,” and sought his disbarment. Pineda denied any wrongdoing, but resigned in 2006 with charges pending. We tried to get Pineda’s comment for this report, but he didn’t return our calls. Even though Pineda can no longer practice law here, Rosa says she doesn’t feel the punishment was harsh enough.
"He took advantage of people’s innocence in order to steal from them. Not money, but the ability to be with their families," says Rosa.
Pineda repeated his questionable legal strategy in court over and over, but no judge or clerk ever formally complained to the state bar. It was only the buildup of clients’ complaints over the years that drove the bar to go after Pineda’s license.
Relying on clients to come forward can be problematic. Many victims are reluctant to speak up for fear of being deported – or they can’t tell their story because they’re already gone.
As for Rosa, she’s still in this country, but she’s not sure for how long. She and her husband have hired a new attorney and they’re still fighting their case. And now she has some advice for others.
"It’s better to consult with various attorneys, so they can advise you properly, and you won’t wind up in the same situation that I am in," explains Rosa.
This story originally aired on February 2, 2010. Dan Torres is now the Program Director at California Rural Legal Assistance. Nora Privateria is recently retired from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
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