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In an all-too-common occurrence among Georgia’s burgeoning immigrant community, a Clarkston school teacher was milked out of hundreds of dollars and found her ability to remain in this country threatened after becoming entangled with a phony lawyer, according to a suit filed last week in Fulton County Superior Court. The complaint was filed on behalf of the state by John G. Marty, assistant director of the State Bar of Georgia’s Unlicensed Practice of Law Department. At issue was the immigration status of Rebecca Cline-Cole, a native of Sierra Leone who teaches at Clarkston’s Indian Creek Elementary School. She was informed in 2003 that her Temporary Protected Status�a designation offered to immigrants who are unable to return to their home countries because of war or natural disaster�was due to expire in May 2004 and could not be renewed. Cline-Cole asked a fellow Sierra Leonean acquaintance to recommend an immigration lawyer and was directed to “attorney John Thomas.” Upon calling the number she was given, she was greeted by a recorded message welcoming her to “Metro Immigration Services” and, following the automatic prompts, soon found herself on the line with Thomas himself. Describing her problem as a “simple immigration matter” that he could handle, Thomas met with Cline-Cole at his office in College Park, and told her that he could have her immigration status “adjusted” for $1,500. Thomas met with the teacher’s supervisor at Indian Creek, Assistant Principal Ardell Saleem, and arranged for her to fill out the necessary forms to allow Cline-Cole to file for an H-1B visa, which would allow her to remain here under an immigration program designed for foreign nationals with post-secondary training. Neither Cline-Cole nor Saleem returned messages left for them at the school but, according to affidavits by both women, Saleem referred to the purported immigration lawyer as “attorney Thomas” throughout that meeting. Although neither Cline-Cole nor Saleem knew it at the time, Thomas�who was listed on several attorney-referral Web sites�was not a licensed attorney. But he was the proprietor of several businesses, including Metro Immigration and Refugee Services Agency, Refugee Business Services, Refugee Services Inc. and others, according to the complaint. None of his businesses were ever incorporated or registered with Georgia Secretary of State’s office, according to the complaint. He is not listed as a member of the State Bar of Georgia. In November 2003, Cline-Cole paid the $1,500; the following month, Thomas said he needed another $485 for processing and visa lottery fees, which she also paid. By February, having heard nothing from Thomas or the government about her case, she called the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service to inquire. “I spoke with an INS [until 2003, the division was known as Immigration and Naturalization Services] officer who told me that he could only discuss the application with my attorney,” said Cline-Cole in her statement. “I subsequently called Mr. Thomas, who scolded me for having called INS and told me that INS could only discuss my case with him, as he was my attorney.” In May, her school notified Cline-Cole that her H-1B status had been approved, but that she had not proved that she had maintained lawful status, as required by law, and that the 30-day deadline to appeal that issue had expired. She contacted Thomas, who demanded another $500 “to conduct research related to an appeal.” Thomas told her that, because the Sierra Leone Embassy in Washington was closed, she would need to travel to Canada to get her H-1B visa approved, and that he would need another $550 to prepare the necessary paperwork. In August 2004, during a call to check on the status of her application, Thomas “told me that INS was requesting additional information on my case and that he was getting tired of INS requests,” said Cline-Cole. “Mr. Thomas had never told me that INS previously had made requests regarding my case.” A couple of months later, school officials told Cline-Cole that her application had been “returned from INS with a notation that they had not been prepared properly.” Finally, in January 2005, Cline-Cole approached Atlanta immigration lawyer Beryl B. Farris, who found that Thomas had also transmitted erroneous information to customs officials regarding Cline-Cole’s immigration status. “Up until this point, I had been under the impression that Mr. Thomas was an attorney throughout all our dealings,” says her affidavit. “I then called Mr. Thomas to question him about whether he was an attorney, and he told me that he had two law degrees and became very argumentative.” She broke off contact, and�other than an “intimidating message from Thomas, has not heard form him again. A letter from Thomas on Metro Immigration letterhead, dated March 20, 2005, informing the teacher that he has misplaced all copies of her filings, is signed “Jonathan Thomas, J.D.” Efforts to reach Thomas at all of the phone numbers listed in the complaint, as well as through online directories, were unsuccessful, and an apparent Web site for Metro Immigration has been shut down. A College Park official said the company’s business license has not been renewed since 2003. State Bar of Georgia v. Thomas (No. 2006CV121685) seeks an injunction barring the defendant from engaging in practice of law or being involved in any activity that relates to that practice. The story is familiar to immigration attorney Susan H. Colussy of Catholic Social Services. “They’re everywhere,” she said of faux lawyers preying on immigrants. “The only thing that’s unusual is that it’s an African immigrant. Most of the times it’s Latinos, particularly up in north Georgia; go down to Columbus, and it’s Koreans outside of Fort Benning.” The vast majority of those targeting immigrants are notarios, a Spanish term for notaries who, in Latin American countries, are afforded a much broader range of legal authority than in the U.S. “The ironic thing is that a lot of the notarios working here charge as much or more for their services than real lawyers would,” said Colussy, mentioning a case she’s working on now involving an elderly Mexican couple who paid some $1,500 to a notario to file their immigration papers, only to find that nothing had been done. “Even if they’re trying” to help their clients, she said, “poorly done paperwork results in removal proceedings against a lot of people. “Immigration law is so complex, and it’s not a very forgiving system.” Greg Land can be reached at [email protected]

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