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The immigrant families showed up at a nondescript office building on the outskirts of the city here thinking a few thousand dollars could buy their elusive dream: American citizenship. But the people they asked for help — Ramayrat and Mercedes Alcantara –weren’t licensed to practice law or provide legal advice. Ramayrat claimed that he was. The pair owned and operated a company called Labor and Immigration Consulting Group, which processed labor certification and visa petitions for Mexican and Filipino clients. But Santa Clara County, Calif. prosecutors say the pair stole thousands of dollars from clients. “These [clients] were working hard to live the American dream, and regardless of how they came here they were trying to do the right thing,” said Deputy District Attorney Dale Lohman, a prosecutor with the major fraud unit whose office is packed with boxes of evidence from her two years on the case. It is the largest immigration fraud prosecution in county history and illustrates a growing problem in Northern California, and San Jose, Calif., in particular — the targeting of vulnerable immigrants by fraudulent attorneys offering the American Dream. Many immigrant families have been left bankrupt by the experience. Yet they are so terrified of being sent back to their home country that they are reluctant to speak with immigration agents — let alone testify — which makes the cases difficult to prosecute. And fraud also makes it difficult for legitimate immigration attorneys. When immigrants finally find their way to legitimate practitioners, their cases have often been so bungled that there is little that can be done to help them. While swindlers seem to target Latinos, similar cases have been reported in Asian communities. A number of Ramayrat and Alcantara’s victims were Filipino immigrants who came to the United States expecting good jobs and new lives. Ramayrat even solicited business with large ads in Filipino newspapers. According to prosecutors, the pair made $650,000 from their businesses — funds that still haven’t been located. A good portion of that money was taken from immigrants making minimum wage, scratching and savinga few thousand dollars to try to become legal citizens. “When you look at these amounts, it doesn’t seem like much. But when you are a busboy or a janitor, it is your life savings,” Lohman said. GROWING PROBLEM Lynette Parker, a Santa Clara University School of Law instructor who runs a free law clinic for immigrants, has seen the impact of immigration fraud firsthand. “I’m frustrated, and this makes me angry. I know if a lot of people had been given good legal advice they wouldn’t be in this position, but sometimes it’s too late and there is nothing that can be done,” she said. Ramayrat recently pleaded no contest to 61 felony counts, including multiple counts of grand theft, payroll tax evasion and tax fraud. Alcantara pleaded no contest to 28 felony counts. No sentencing date has been set. Lohman said victims in her case were lured by fliers offering amnesty and fancy business cards in which Ramayrat presented himself as a lawyer. One ad promised to help immigrants:”Bring Friends and Relatives to the U.S.” through amnesty. “They showed tremendous courage,” Lohman said of the victims. “Working with the authorities is a tremendous leap of faith if you think an INS agent will be at the door.” There are as many as 9 million to 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, so cases can be found throughout the country, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association. But immigration law experts say fraud is epidemic in areas with large Spanish-speaking populations, such as San Jose, Calif. Some attorneys say the problem is only recently coming to light in Northern California. Immigration law experts say fraudulent attorneys and legal advisers are able to prey on these communities because many immigrants associate traditional attorneys with law enforcement. As a result, immigrants are more likely to trust someone from their own country that speaks their language and knows their cultures and traditions. Many compare such illegitimate legal advisers to “coyotes,” the word for people who offer to take Mexican immigrants over the border for an exorbitant fee. “There isn’t an immigration attorney alive who hasn’t had a client stop by one of these clinics to get some help,” said Angela Bean of San Francisco’s Angela Bean & Associates, an immigration law expert. Bean said many immigration law clinics are legitimate businesses staffed with people who want to help. But there are also people who prey on vulnerable groups. “There [are people] who have absolutely no interest in these clients but see immigration as a bonanza and a way to earn easy money,” she said. And changes mandated after Sept. 11 by the Department of Homeland Security mean that even many legitimate immigration law clinics are having difficulty keeping up with immigration law. “Immigration is so complicated and has such consequences that the consultants can’t keep up,” Bean said. ‘NOTARIOS’ In Spanish-speaking communities, immigrants seeking legal help often go to professionals called “notarios.” In Mexico, experts say, a notario is a type of attorney qualified to handle certain cases. But they are generally not equipped to handle the American legal system or the subtleties of immigration law. Some don’t even have the rudimentary credentials needed to work as a law clerk in the United States. “Part of the fraud is creating this appearance — this perception — to the general public that they are qualified attorneys,” said Marshall Fitz, associate director of advocacy for the AILA. “That is one of the ways they draw people in.” Fitz said notarios often pick up business by promising immigrants citizenship after announcements like President Bush’s proposal to allow many undocumented immigrants to stay and work in the United States. That proposal has not become law. “They set themselves up by playing off of events,” he said. Notarios also often promise they have “special contacts.” Many immigrants think that’s the way to become a citizen because a good amount of legal business is handled under the table in their country. The scams vary from a simple “take the money and run” scheme to giving immigrants fraudulent paperwork. And since the government has a huge backlog of cases, there is a ready-made excuse for why the green cards never arrive. “When you sit back and think about it — if it was your life that was at stake and you fully understood the significance of that, you wouldn’t put yourself in the hands of one of these guys,” Fitz said. There is also the inevitable fallout when immigrants discover they have been duped and now face a more challenging situation. “They come to us after they’ve paid large sums of money and have been told they can get a green card from certain programs when they can’t,” said Minette Kwok, an immigration attorney and partner with San Francisco’s Minami, Lew & Tamaki. “They can be placed in pretty precarious circumstances, and I haven’t seen the worst,” she said. SOLVING THE PROBLEM Attorneys say immigration law fraud will continue to affect potential clients and businesses until the problem is better publicized. Lawyers also need to do their part to ferret out corruption, experts say. “Unfortunately, this is probably a growth industry unless there is more vigilance,” Lohman said. Fitz said AILA is developing a program to alert immigrants to the dangers of illegitimate consultants. The organization also plans to place public service announcements in ethnic newspapers and possibly on Spanish-language cable channels. Some attorneys say there have been informal discussions about the need for additional pro bono work in immigration cases — as well as lower fees — but those have not progressed. Bean, a 20-year immigration attorney, said the solution begins with lawyers. While illegitimate clinics are a big part of the problem, she said, unscrupulous lawyers who take advantage of immigrants are just as bad. “They tell them what they want to hear so desperately and they present their case so enthusiastically,” she said. “But they are doing more to deport Mexicans than the Department of Homeland Security.”

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