Exploiting immigrants

Trini Flores says she has helped illegal immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens or work in the country legally.

But some in the legal community say Flores is anything but a friend to illegals. They claim she preys on vulnerable, hardworking people who don’t understand the system, speak little English and are loath to complain to any authority when their hopes for legal status are dashed.

Immigration lawyers say Flores — and scores of “immigration consultants” like her — takes money from immigrants and then hastens their deportations.

“I had quite a few complaints about her in the last year,” says attorney Rick Kessler, who has a private immigration practice in Grand Rapids.

Most recently Kessler had a Guatemalan man and his mother complain to him that they paid Flores $200 to complete the man’s asylum application. Kessler says the application was not only completed improperly, but the 19-year-old is not eligible for asylum because it applies only to people who are being persecuted by their government or living in a war zone. Kessler says the Guatemalan, who is in the States illegally, is now in the process of being deported. He says the young man may have had a chance to stay in the States since Congress is working on a law that would allow some immigrants younger than 21 who finish high school to stay in the country. His client was a good candidate, he says.

Kessler says he has had two other asylum cases for Guatemalans on which Flores worked this year alone.

One man left the country voluntarily and another is in the process of being deported, he says.

Flores admits that she completes asylum applications for illegal aliens. But she denies charging them for this service.

“People who claim I charge them to fill out paperwork, they are wrong,” says Flores, who is of Mexican descent and speaks fluent Spanish.

She says she does charge a fee — up to $150 — to translate at asylum hearings. She is not an attorney and insists that she doesn’t give legal advice, which is unlawful to do in Michigan without a license.

“I tell them that I’m not a lawyer. All I’m doing is reading questions and they answer,” says Flores of her work on immigration forms.

Flores reluctantly answers Metro Times’ questions outside her home in Portage, near Kalamazoo. She doesn’t want her photo taken and threatens to sue if it is published.

“This is what happens when you help people. I should have charged every one of those people,” says Flores.

She explains that Guatemalan immigrants come to her for help after hearing about her from friends. She doesn’t know how many people she has helped over the years but claims to have recently stopped assisting illegals. Flores says she decided to stop after two attorneys warned her that people she was claiming to assist would likely be deported because of defective asylum applications she completes.

“I said, ‘If I put anyone in deportation, I won’t do it,’” says Flores.

But earlier in the same interview, Flores had said that it didn’t matter how she completes asylum forms because, “Everyone that comes to me is going to get deported anyway.”

Immigration attorneys want unscrupulous or incompetent immigration consultants stopped. Many support proposed legislation intended to rein them in.

The bill, spearheaded by state Rep. Steve Tobocman, D-Detroit, is called the Michigan Immigration Clerical Assistance Act (MICA).

Tobocman’s district includes southwest Detroit, which has a large Spanish-speaking community.

The lawmaker says that many unsuspecting immigrants — both legal and illegal — turn to unscrupulous consultants for legal advice.

Anyone driving along West Vernor Highway in southwest Detroit will see dozens of signs posted by people offering assistance with immigration matters. What lures some newly arrived immigrants is the Spanish term “notario publico”— notary public.

In many Latin American countries, notario publicos are attorneys, explains Tobocman. Immigrants see such signs and assume the person is an attorney qualified to help them. In fact, notary publics in the United States can merely verify signatures on documents, he says.

“We have to get this [MICA] passed,” says Mary Turner, a social worker at LASED, Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development, in southwest Detroit.

The measure, which has bipartisan support, is expected to be debated in the Michigan House of Representatives this month.

Turner, who regularly gets complaints about notarios, tells of two illegals who had been in this country for a decade who are being deported because a notario gave them inaccurate information.

In another case, Turner says that a notario charged an immigrant $40 for a service that costs only $5 at LASED.

“Greed has gone to their heads,” Turner says of notarios.

Lost in translation

Immigration consultants are not unique to the Spanish-speaking community.

Lisa Ahmed, a private immigration attorney in Hamtramck, home to immigrants from many countries, says consultants are
cropping up in the city’s growing Bangladeshi community.

She tells of a consultant improperly completing immigration papers for a Bangladeshi man who is in the States legally and was trying to bring his wife here. As a result of the mistake, the man’s wife will be ineligible to join him for five years, says Ahmed.

The Arab community faces the same problem, says George Saba, immigration specialist at the Arab-American Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Dearborn. Saba says he gets complaints every week from Arab immigrants who have been exploited by such consultants.

“These people are crooks, that’s the bottom line,” says attorney George Mann, who has an immigration law practice in Farmington Hills and gets complaints about consultants about once a month. “They milk these anxious people who are working under the table and living hand-to-mouth, and give them the promise of legitimacy. These people are not only taking their money, but they expose them to deportation. Once they are deported they are subject to a 10-year bar [from re-entering the U.S]. So, basically, their dream is destroyed.”

Michigan’s migrant farm workers, who are plentiful in rural areas, also are easy prey, says attorney Thomas Thornburg, managing director of Farmworker Legal Services in Bangor, near Kalamazoo.

“This is a gold mine for anyone who has bilingual skills,” says Thornburg. “Really, the sky is the limit on what they can do in terms of profiteering.”

Immigrants trust people who speak their language, he explains.

Some consultants may have good intentions, but immigration law is so complicated it is easy to make a mistake, says Thornburg.

Some consultants charge exorbitant fees and promise to get legal status for immigrants who are ineligible, he says. Others simply take the money and do nothing. Or worse, they give false information that gets the immigrant deported, he says.

Thornburg says problems with unscrupulous or incompetent consultants have existed in Michigan and across the country for decades. He says consultants know they can get away with it since illegal immigrants won’t complain to the authorities for fear of being deported.

In 2000, there were an estimated 7 million illegal aliens in the United States, according the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), formerly called U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS). There were an estimated 37,000 illegals in Michigan in 1996, according to the most recent data available.

Carl Rusnok, ICE spokesman, says no figures on legal aliens are available. However, about 570,000 immigrants became American citizens in 2002, according to ICE data.

Illegals come to the United States for jobs, says Rene Perez Rosenbaum, a Michigan State University associate professor with the Julian Samora Research Institute, which studies public policies affecting Latino communities in the Midwest.

Companies recruit illegal workers worldwide because they accept lower wages, says Rosenbaum.

“It’s cheap labor,” he says.

Illegals won’t unionize and are willing to do undesirable jobs, says Rosenbaum.

Tobocman hopes to help prevent exploitation with his legislation. It would require people who profit from providing immigration services to post a $50,000 bond. It would also require that they put in writing — in the client’s native language — the services they provide.

MICA would allow attorneys — instead of fearful illegals — to be plaintiffs in lawsuits against consultants.

Those who violate the MICA law would also be subject to fines and prosecution, says Tobocman.

Currently, law enforcement officials rarely go after consultants, he says.

Not everyone is convinced that the MICA legislation is necessary.

David Ray, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), says the best way for immigrants to avoid exploitation is enter the country legally, or not at all. Ray believes that enforcement of immigration laws and stronger border controls are essential.

Even Rick Kessler has his doubts that MICA would fully protect illegals.

“I’m a little bit afraid that this legislation creates almost an expectation that if you register and pay the bond, you’re okay,” he says.

Mirna’s delay

Mirna Lopez Cantoral says Trini Flores charged her $250 to complete her immigration documents, then fouled them up.

Cantoral, 43, sits at her kitchen table in the mobile home she and her boyfriend recently purchased in Portage. It’s a tidy space, sparsely furnished. A colorful mobile from her native country, Guatemala, dangles from the ceiling.

Accompanying Cantoral is Sister Rosemary Tierney, whom Cantoral met through the Immigration Assistance Program, which was founded by the Catholic Diocese of Kalamazoo. Tierney recently retired from the program, which she helped establish six years ago.

Cantoral went to the diocese for help after Flores allegedly mishandled her immigration case.

“It took us two years to correct the mess,” says Tierney.

Cantoral says she entered the United States illegally in 1992 and lived in Los Angeles for five years, where she worked at a clothing factory.

Cantoral went to LA to be with her father, a legal permanent resident who is entitled to work in the United States and obtain a green card.

Legal permanent residency is the first of many steps to becoming a U.S. citizen, Tierney explains.

Cantoral says her father filed a petition in 1993 with the immigration bureau on her behalf so she could also become a legal resident. Tierney explains that this is a common way for parents to help their children obtain legal status in the States.

In 1997, Cantoral’s boyfriend, a Salvadoran whom she met in Los Angeles, moved to Kalamazoo. She followed him there a month later, she says, and they rented a room in Flores’ home. Cantoral says her boyfriend met Flores through a friend and that Flores treated them well and helped her get a housekeeping job. They lived with Flores about eight months.

Cantoral had her immigration case transferred from California to Detroit, and she says Flores offered to complete additional paperwork that would allow her to become a permanent legal resident. She says that Flores charged her $250 to ask her the questions on the forms and record her answers.

Cantoral says Flores drove her to the Detroit Immigration and Naturalization Service office twice, and charged her $100 each time.

In interviews, Flores acknowledges that Cantoral lived with her but she initially denies completing her immigration papers. “The immigration office did, in Detroit,” says Flores.

She later admits that she filled out Cantoral’s immigration papers.

“I helped her, yes, and she got her work permit in 1997,” Flores says.

Asked if she charged Cantoral for the service, Flores says, “No. She was a friend.”

Cantoral says she obtained her work authorization in 1997, but did not become a permanent legal resident until last year.

Tierney alleges that mistakes Flores made in Cantoral’s paperwork delayed her case.

On average it takes about two years to obtain permanent legal residency, but it took five years for Cantoral, says Tierney. (Some of the delay—less than a year—was due to an INS mistake, she says.)

Without legal status, Cantoral could not return to Guatemala to visit her five children, whom she left in the care of her mother. The children’s father left the family years ago, says Cantoral.

Cantoral returned to Guatemala last year after she obtained legal status. She says she regularly sends money earned from her job at an auto parts factory to her mother. She hopes to one day bring her children to the States and help them obtain legal status.

“As far as I know”

Attorney Kirsten Enstice says she has heard many complaints about Trini Flores. She says she has called Flores and has written a letter advising her that it is illegal for her to dispense legal advice and that her actions are putting immigrants at risk for deportation. Enstice has worked at the Immigration Assistance Program, from which Tierney recently retired, for four years.

She says people like Flores prompted her to contact Tobocman and propose the MICA legislation to regulate immigration consultants.

“It was our program that started it and put together the first draft of the legislation,” says Enstice.

She doesn’t expect MICA will prevent consultants from doing business, but the law would give immigrants far more protection.

Enstice says she has seen several asylum applications completed by Flores. Immigrants go to her, she says, because they want a work authorization permit. According to Enstice, asylum applicants are automatically granted a work permit within 180 days. But if their asylum bids are denied — usually within a year — they will be deported, she says.

Immigration judges can permanently prohibit applicants who file frivolous asylum bids from entering the country.

Enstice claims asylum applications Flores completed are all frivolous. In nearly every one, she says, Flores claims that the applicant could not return to their native country for economic reasons, though this is not a legal basis for asylum.

This is what happened to the Guatemalan man who contacted Kessler. He and his mother told Kessler that Flores charged $200 to complete an asylum application. Kessler provided a redacted copy of the asylum application, which includes Flores’ signature as “preparer.”

Kessler says a deportation hearing is scheduled for the 19-year-old in January.

According to Kessler, the asylum application was flawed in several ways. For one, he says, Guatemala is no longer considered a war zone, meaning Guatemalan citizens are generally ineligible for asylum. It also says that the applicant is seeking asylum because in Guatemala, “I have nothing and would starve to death.”

Economic hardship is not a basis for asylum, explains Kessler. To qualify, the applicant must face government persecution for belonging to a religious, political or another protected group, he says. On the application, “No” is checked in response to a question about whether the applicant has ever been mistreated by his government. Furthermore, even if the applicant were eligible, he would likely have been denied asylum since the application was filed late, says Kessler.

Kessler says his client may have been able to stay in the States had the flawed asylum application not been filed. The best he can hope for now is “voluntary departure,” which would not prohibit him from returning, he says.

Those who are forced to leave the country against their will, and have been in this country illegally for a year or more, cannot return for 10 years, he says.

Shown the 19-year-old Guatemalan’s asylum application, Flores admits that she completed it. She says she has completed asylum applications for several Guatemalans.

She exhibits little grasp of the rules governing asylum applications.

“They’re [Guatemalans] the only ones eligible for asylum — as far as I know,” says Flores.

Minutes later, however, she contradicts herself, saying, “Only thing they get out of this is a work permit. They won’t get asylum.”

Flores insists that she explains this to the people she helps and that she doesn’t charge for her services. She says it is Kessler, not her, who “rips people off.”

Carlos Pizarro

Trini Flores is not the only consultant on Kirsten Enstice’s radar.

In April, she wrote to a Battle Creek consultant named Carlos Pizarro to chide him for allegedly charging a woman $1,000 to complete an immigration application for her daughter. Enstice’s letter states that INS officials rejected the application as an “inappropriate filing” but that Pizarro did not refund the fee.

Enstice informed Pizarro that federal and state law prohibits “a non-attorney to give legal advice or to fill out immigration documents for another person for pay without attorney supervision.”

She asked that he return the $1,000 fee, but says that Pizarro never responded.

Enstice says her client’s daughter has had her immigration case delayed, and that her client, a legal resident, has grounds to sue Pizarro.

“I told her you have a tremendous case,” says Enstice. But the client chose not to pursue the suit because she didn’t want to “speak badly of anyone,” which is a common trait in the Spanish-speaking community, says Enstice.

Pizarro tells Metro Times that he contacted Enstice after receiving her letter but that she did not return his call. He says his daughter also left a message, which was never returned.

Pizarro, who spoke to Metro Times on the porch of his Battle Creek home, reviewed a copy of Enstice’s letter. He claims that he was never paid $1,000 and, therefore, does not owe a refund. He also claims that Enstice’s letter, in which the client’s name has been redacted, refers to a wife and husband seeking immigration help, not a mother and daughter.

Pizarro, 61, a native Puerto Rican, came to the United States in 1995. He says three of his five children live in Battle Creek, and that his children helped support him when he first came to the States. He now receives disability for congestive heart failure.

Pizarro is a notary public and had worked as a legal assistant in Puerto Rico. He says he charges nominal fees for office materials and other related costs. But Pizarro admits that he charged the client mentioned in Enstice’s letter $410 for completing immigration papers.

He has translated documents and completed immigration papers for about 50 people in the community; at least half of these people obtained legal status or work permits with his help, he says.

Pizarro downloads immigration forms and instructions from the Internet. But he insists that he does not give legal advice.

Pizarro says most immigrants who seek his help learn about him by word of mouth. Pizarro says he advertised his services once, in a 1999 issue of a local Spanish newspaper.

Attorney Chris Vreeland, who has an immigration practice in Battle Creek, plans to complain to the State Bar of Michigan about Pizarro for allegedly claiming to be a lawyer. The state bar sues people who practice law without a license.

Vreeland provided Metro Times a copy of a client’s redacted affidavit last week. It says that Pizarro told Vreeland’s client that “he was an immigration and divorce attorney and that he would handle” her divorce for $300. The woman agreed to have Pizarro handle the divorce, according to the affidavit. Vreeland says his client did not pay Pizarro, but does not know if the husband paid him. Divorce papers were not filed with the court, says Vreeland.

“No, I would not tell anyone that I am an attorney,” says Pizarro in a follow-up phone interview. “There are people out there who, out of ignorance, believe you are an attorney, but I tell them I am not.”

Pizarro also claims that Enstice complains about him because she thinks he is taking her clients.

“They don’t want to lose money,” he says of the diocese.

But the Immigration Assistance Program does not charge clients for legal services.

Enstice says illegal immigrants have few places to turn for legal counsel. Immigration attorneys are often too costly and free legal services for low-income people that get federal funding are prohibited from serving illegal immigrants.

Enstice says the diocese founded her program to give immigrants an alternative to immigration consultants.

In fact, it was specifically created after the legal community discovered that one notorious notario had more than 1,000 immigration cases.

The Rosales files

A small room at Farmworker Legal Services in Bangor, west of Kalamazoo, contains three black file cabinets that stand about 4 feet tall. They contain documents on nearly 1,250 immigration cases that were discovered in a shed belonging to Esperanza Rosales, one of the most infamous notarios to have operated in Michigan.

Angela Walker, a legal assistant for Michigan Farmworker Legal Services, randomly pulls files from the cabinets.

A family of nine was charged $1,080 each for immigration documents that normally would cost only $300 per person to file, says Walker. Some of the paperwork was incorrectly completed and family members had to leave the country, she says.

The files tell many similar stories, says Walker.

At one time, Rosales was well respected in the Spanish-speaking community. In the 1980s a nursery in Hartford, Mich., hired her to help their undocumented workers obtain legal status. At the time, the U.S had offered amnesty to certain illegal immigrants. The nursery sent Rosales to the INS office in Detroit for amnesty training.

When the program ended, Rosales went into business for herself, charging some people thousands of dollars for immigration assistance, according to court records.

She bought a large van and charged $50 — the fee was later raised to $65 — to drive a client to the Detroit INS office, says Walker.

“She would take 10 people at a time,” she says.

But the legal community — and some of her victims — put Rosales out of business about five years ago.

Thornburg says he began hearing complaints about Rosales from migrant workers around 1991.

But it took five years before anyone got enough courage to sue, he says.

Many illegal immigrants are afraid to come forward and complain. Thornburg says some are ashamed that they have been duped; most would rather avoid dealing with the government in any way.

The legal community was able to build a case against Rosales after obtaining immigration papers she had completed for one of her victims. Immigration consultants are loath to give clients copies of the documents filed, or receipts for fees charged, says Thornburg.

“That’s how they cover their tracks,” he says.

In 1997, six migrant workers and others sued Rosales for fraud, negligence and other illegal acts. The plaintiffs alleged that Rosales took their money but failed to help them.

For some — like Sebastian Rodriguez and Yesenia Carrizales — Rosales’ actions made matters worse.

Carrizales, a U.S. citizen, was born in Texas. Rodriguez is a native of Mexico. In April 1995, the couple married. About five months later they asked Rosales to help Rodriguez become a permanent legal resident. Though the couple had married, immigration documents had to be filed for Rodriguez to be in the States legally, says Thornburg. Rosales claimed that she was an attorney and could help them, according to the lawsuit. But what should have been a routine case turned into a nightmare.

The couple paid Rosales $300 to file the necessary paperwork, which she failed to do. Consequently, when the couple was in Texas, Rodriguez was detained by the INS, which planned to deport him. Carrizales contacted Rosales, who told her that her husband didn’t need to retain an attorney in Texas and that she would have the case transferred to Michigan, according to the lawsuit. Rosales also advised Carrizales that he husband should not attend his deportation hearing in Texas.

“This was bad advice,” says Thornburg. Not attending the hearing meant “automatic deportation and is almost never overturned,” he says.

The couple returned to Michigan and paid Rosales an additional $800 to file more immigration papers — which contained false information, according to the lawsuit — on behalf of Rodriguez.

In 1996, Rodriguez received an INS letter stating that he would be deported for failing to appear at his hearing in Texas. The couple grew suspicious of Rosales and demanded their immigration documents, which she refused to give them, the lawsuit says.

In 1997, Rodriguez appeared at an INS appointment in Detroit and was immediately jailed and ordered deported. His wife filed paperwork, asking the immigration director to reconsider.

“The director gave her an extraordinary remedy which stayed the deportation,” says Thornburg.

Charmaine Martinez was another plaintiff in the lawsuit against Rosales. Martinez and her husband paid Rosales $1,500 in 1996 to help them adopt their three grandsons, Mexican citizens. She collected another $1,460 from the couple to cover filing fees charged by the INS, according to the lawsuit.

For months the Martinezes contacted Rosales about the status of their grandsons’
cases, but she did not return their calls. Until the date she was sued, Rosales never contacted the couple and retained their grandsons’ original immigration documents. Attorney Judith Fox, who works at Notre Dame Legal Aid in South Bend, Ind., and who worked on the Rosales lawsuit, says that the Martinezes could have obtained legal status for their grandchildren through adoption, but apparently Rosales didn’t tell them this. Now, the grandsons are too old to adopt and there is no way to help them obtain legal status, says Fox.

In the course of the litigation, Rosales agreed to a deposition, says Thornburg. That testimony was helpful in obtaining a legal judgment against her, he adds.

“She left the area not to be heard of, even by her family,” he says.

The judgment allowed the plaintiffs to seize her office building, home and property, all of which was liquidated, with proceeds used to reimburse the plaintiffs.

“We needed to get people’s money back to vindicate them, to show them they were right,” says Thornburg.

They also wanted to get immigration records back in the hands of her victims. Nothing was found in Rosales’ office. But neatly organized files containing immigration documents for nearly 1,250 people were found in boxes in a backyard shed.

The court gave Farmworker Legal Services custody of the files and asked the organization to return the documents to the rightful owners.

A notice was posted alerting attorneys and nonprofits that work with immigrants about the Rosales case and the documents. To this day, Farmworker Legal Services, which maintains a complete set of the 1,250 files, still has people contacting them for their records.

“We get a call every month,” says Thornburg.

But not everyone has claimed their records.

This haunts Fox. She says she still thinks about one couple who had five children and paid Rosales $10,000 to file the necessary papers to become legal residents.

“The family thought they were all here legally and she never filed a single paper,” says Fox. “If they are picked up, they will be deported.”

Scant cases

Rosales is one of only a few known immigration consultants to have been sued in Michigan.

In 1997, the State Bar sued David Lulgjuraj in Macomb County Circuit Court for practicing law without a license. Victoria Kremski, assistant regulation counsel for the State Bar of Michigan, says part of the organization’s mission is to sue people who illegally practice law.

Such lawsuits are complaint driven, says Kremski. The State Bar does not track how many complaints it receives annually, she says.

The lawsuit alleged that in 1995 Lulgjuraj accepted $7,000 from George Nestor, a Romanian immigrant, to process paperwork so that he could legally remain in the United States. But Lulgjuraj failed to obtain lawful status for Nestor and refused to refund his money, according to the lawsuit.

Also in 1995, Viola Basa, a Romanian citizen, paid Lulgjuraj $2,500 to help her obtain legal status.

But Basa never obtained legal status and Lulgjuraj would not return the $2,500 fee, the lawsuit says.

Lulgjuraj operated out of his Sterling Heights business, Dave’s World Travel Agency, where he gave legal advice and prepared immigration documents, according to the lawsuit.

In some Eastern European countries it is common to obtain visas and other immigration papers from travel agencies.

The court ordered Lulgjuraj to pay back Basa and Nestor. The court also enjoined him from preparing immigration documents or giving legal advice.

What is to prevent Lulgjuraj or others like him from setting up shop elsewhere in the state or country?

“The laws are only as effective as how well they are enforced,” says attorney Julia Hendrix, a spokeswoman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

AILA does not track complaints or lawsuits filed against immigration consultants nationwide, though it acknowledges that it is a major problem.

In 1999, the State Bar of Michigan sued Alfredo Rodriguez in Ottawa County Circuit Court for practicing law without a license. Rodriguez, who died last year, was well known by immigration attorneys who often heard complaints about him. Some suspect that he had thousands of victims.

Manuel Pascual paid Rodriguez $500 to file immigration papers for him. He gave Rodriguez an additional $300 as a “retainer,” which is common fee that attorneys charge. But Rodriguez did not properly handle Pascual’s immigration matter. Pascual, who had a 5-year-old daughter at the time, was deported and barred from re-entering the United States for 10 years, according to court records.

Francisco Negrete Lopez paid Rodriguez $500 in 1997 to resolve an immigration issue for him. However, it was not resolved and Rodriguez would not return the money, according to the lawsuit.

According to a 2000 court order, Rodriguez was prohibited from giving legal advice; the order does not say he had to repay Lopez or Pascual.

Attorney as plaintiff

Attorney Steve Baughman practices in immigration law in San Francisco, where he represents many Chinese immigrants. His firm began suing immigration consultants four years ago.

“We were furious about the stories we were hearing from the victims,” says Baughman, who has been practicing immigration law for nearly 13 years. His firm sued about two dozen immigration consultants with Baughman as the plaintiff.

“We saw the body count rising and rising and since law enforcement wasn’t doing anything we filed [lawsuits] with me as plaintiff,” says Baughman.

California has a law, passed in the mid-1980s, that is similar to the one Tobocman is proposing in Michigan. The law enables attorneys to sue consultants without having to name the victim in the lawsuit.

Baughman organized stings to catch immigration consultants who were acting illegally. He hired a private investigator to pose as an illegal Chinese immigrant seeking asylum. One consultant made up a phony story about the private investigator belonging to Falun Gong, a religious group that is persecuted by the Chinese government.

“The mistake they made was to let the investigator leave with their phony declaration,” says Baughman. Most immigration consultants know better than to give clients papers that can be traced to them, he says.

Baughman says his firm has developed a reputation for going after predatory immigration consultants.

“They [victims] don’t go to cops, they come to us,” he says.

Though the California law has enabled Baughman to sue predatory consultants, he is extremely critical of it.

“I used to think that some [law] was better than nothing, and I don’t anymore,” he says.

Baughman believes that California’s law makes it easier for consultants to exploit illegal immigrants.

California requires consultants to post a $50,000 bond.

“They do this and stick [a bond certificate] in the office as evidence that they are in compliance,” says Baughman. “Now they have permission to be an immigration consultant and no one watches them any more because they are presumed to be working legally when the vast majority are not.”

Baughman also believes that the law gives immigration consultants “an air of legitimacy” that makes it difficult for unsuspecting immigrants to know the difference.

“A bond certificate and a law certificate look about the same if you can’t read English,” he says.

California law limits consultants to charging nominal fees for translating documents and filling out immigration forms. However, consultants are prohibited from advising immigrants about how to complete the forms. This is similar to what consultants would be allowed to do if the Michigan proposed law is passed.

Baughman says that many consultants continue to cross the line.

“Immigration consultants can’t make a living without stepping over into practicing law,” he says.

Baughman believes the solution is to outlaw immigration consultants and replace them with low-cost legal aid programs.

“Access to affordable legal services is the real problem for immigrants, and consultants are not the solution,” he says.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. She can be reached at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]
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