the state attorney general's office, both of
which responded with programs of their own.
A handful of private attorneys like Baughman are
taking on pro bono cases in their communities. It is an exceedingly
difficult undertaking. Judges don't always award attorneys fees,
meaning pro bono attorneys can log many unpaid hours. Sometimes the
target flees. Victims are often too fearful or humiliated to come
forward - Baughman once named himself a plaintiff in a suit of five
fraudulent consultants. He stressed there is a need for a united front
to effectively attack these unauthorized practitioners.
A partner at the Chinese community law firm
Baughman & Wang, Baughman is now representing the couple in their
deportation matter. A U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service
hearing is scheduled for May 2003, a lengthy wait that is not uncommon
for INS hearings.
In an earlier case, he won a default judgment
against the same paralegal, who he says defrauded about six more of
his clients. She was ordered to cease and desist from unauthorized
practice of law, but Baughman says she has since "gone
underground." He believes the woman fled the Bay Area and set up
shop somewhere else.
"If we can make things difficult for them,
we've achieved part of our goal," he said. "It would also be
nice if there were more lawyers involved in pro bono all over the
state so there would be no place to hide."
Baughman says he hears complaints about the same
shady consultants again and again. Remedies such as temporary
restraining orders and injunctions put offenders on notice, but when
they pull a disappearing act, it is assumed they will strike
"Any time there are vulnerable immigrants there
will be predators at work in the community," he said. "They're
the easiest people in the world to take advantage of. They believe
these (consultants) will reveal all their secrets, have the power to
have them deported. They're not going to come forward and stand up
Alan Diamante of the Mexican American Bar
Association calls these predators the Chupa Cabra, or
"goat-sucker," lifting folklore of a bat-like beast said to drain
blood from its prey.
A slow drain
In the Latino community, Diamante says, the
rip-off often works like a slow drain, with "notarios publico"
working in conjunction with licensed attorneys and charging customers
piecemeal: a $500 initial fee, $200 more for an interpreter, $250 for
each court appearance, including a series of continuances. When the
ill-prepared case loses, there's another $500 charge to appeal, and
so on. It is not unusual for clients to pay $10,000 for what amounts
to little more than the filing of frivolous papers. At best, the
customer loses a lot of money; at worst, he or she gets deported.
"This is the biggest, most insidious racket . .
. and evidently this racket works pretty good," Diamante said.
"These people have been doing it so long, they get caught, their
hand gets slapped and they go back at it again."
The Southern California Chinese Lawyers
Association traces the problem back to 1986, when new federal amnesty
and registry laws brought a wave of applicants hoping to adjust their
immigration status. The California Immigration Consultants Act created
a class of consultants to help applicants fill out basic forms at
But the blame cannot be placed only on
non-attorneys; there are plenty of current and former lawyers preying
on the vulnerable and desperate.
In one of three civil lawsuits filed against
immigration consulting companies last month, the attorney general's
office targeted Walter Wenko, who in 1998 opened Asian Pacific Legal
Services in the Los Angeles area. According to the lawsuit, Wenko's
business cards read, "Attor-ney at Law." He advertises in the
attorney's section of Chinese-language yellow pages. The "legal
services" in the company's name is interpreted as "attorney's
office" in Chinese.
Although Wenko was a lawyer for nearly 20 years,
he was disbarred in 1998 for misconduct which included unauthorized
practice while he was suspended for nonpayment of dues. He opened the
consulting business while disbarment proceedings were underway.
Six active State Bar members also are named in
the lawsuit, which alleges the company defrauded Chinese immigrants in
the Alhambra and Monterey Park areas by promising them attorney
assistance and favorable results. Deputy Attorney General Sabrina Kim
said the attorneys, at least two of whom have been disciplined in the
past, made court appearances for Wenko, who could not appear because
he was disbarred.
Kim said her office is seeking a preliminary
injunction in Wenko's case; a hearing is set for Nov. 9 in Los
Angeles Superior Court. The office won temporary restraining orders in
its complaints against the two other businesses, Immigration Solution
Center and Immigration World Wide Services.
The filings are part of a new effort by Attorney
General Bill Lockyer to target UPL. In March, he created the Office of
Immigrant Assistance, and last month, in announcing the civil suits,
he vowed to crack down on UPL.
Also in March, the Los Angeles district
attorney's immigration task force conducted its third sweep, filing
felony and misdemeanor charges against several consultants. Ramiro
Lopez, accused of defrauding one family of $20,000 and another of
$7,300, has since received a county jail sentence after pleading
guilty to one count of grand theft, Deputy District Attorney Jeff
McGrath said immigrants often are attracted to
illegitimate businesses because they promise results and often claim
to have inside connections at the INS.
"It's a horrendous, horrendous problem that
has real-life consequences for so many people," McGrath said. "You
have people who want to stay here so badly, when they go to a
legitimate lawyer and are told there's nothing they can file to keep
them in the country . . . these people, not want-ing to hear the
truth, go elsewhere."
The district attorney's office is attacking the
problem in three ways, McGrath said: educating the public, prosecuting
offenders and supporting legislation.
When AB 1858 took effect this year, it
strengthened consumer protection by requiring immigration consultants
to disclose in advertising that they are not attorneys; lawyers must
list their bar numbers (see page 7).
While the State Bar can discipline attorneys who
scam consumers, felony prosecution of non-attorneys remains limited to
charges of fraud and grand theft. Bar President Karen Nobumoto has
suggested that when non-attorneys bilk consumers, the UPL charge
should be a felony - it
is now a misdemeanor.
But Baughman said he has had trouble getting
interest from San Francisco prosecutors in taking on any of his cases.
He says more law enforcement agencies must join the battle, using
tools already in place.
"I don't care how pretty the books are. If no
one's enforcing the laws that are there, then it's all window
dressing," Baughman said. "I think there's enough on the books
now to wage a good war against UPL."