California Bar Journal
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UPL victimizes vulnerable immigrants
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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 elsewhere.

"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 to anybody."

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 minimal cost.

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.

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."