Thursday, April 22, 2010

Oakland sues company, saying it scams immigrant families

By Kelly Rayburn and Matt O'Brien | Oakland Tribune
01/28/2010

OAKLAND -- The city sued an Oakland company Thursday in Superior Court, alleging the firm ripped off immigrant families by fraudulently representing itself as a service to help people seeking legal residency in the United States.

Oakland-based American Legal Services cost families "many thousands of dollars" and, in some cases, "prejudiced their clients' opportunities for immigration status," the city said. The company is headed by Musa Bala Bald and Irene Penaloza Bald , the lawsuit said. The Bald s live in Alameda.

City Attorney John Russo called the company a "menace to some of the most vulnerable" people in the city.

"American Legal Services is an outlaw company here in Oakland that has based its business on swindling the families of immigrants who are seeking legal residency in America," he said.

The lawsuit asks for restitution for the victims, punitive damages, an injunction and civil penalties of up to $8.2 million. Attempts to reach the Bald s at home and their business were not successful.

Oakland's lawsuit is part of a growing effort among cities and legal groups across the country to halt the widespread practice known as "notario fraud," in which consultants purporting to have legal expertise prey on unsuspecting immigrants and sometimes end up ruining their chances of remaining in the United States when applications for changes in immigration status are rejected.

"They're placing people in jeopardy of deportation," said Allison Davenport, an attorney with the Oakland-based Centro Legal de la Raza, which worked with Russo's office on the case. "People go in for a consultation to talk about their case, and then they're being told, 'Sure, it's no problem.' "

One of the alleged victims in the Oakland case said he went to American Legal Services in hopes of obtaining green cards for himself and his wife. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his immigration status.

The man, a 56-year-old construction worker, has children who are citizens -- including one who had just turned 21 when he went to American Legal Services. Sometimes undocumented immigrants are able to earn residency when they have a citizen child age 21 or older.

The man said he paid the company about $7,000, believing the firm could help his family. When the company asked for another $10,000, he said he'd had enough.

"I said, 'No m s,' " he said. " 'That's it. I'm not giving you another penny.' "

He subsequently spent more money trying to straighten the matter out. Because he had applied unsuccessfully for a change in his immigration status, he is now on the government's radar and faces a deportation hearing this spring, he said.

The city based its lawsuit on his family's experience and the experiences of five other families, officials said. Russo said the families are mostly Latino and Arabic.

"Given the patterns we're seeing, we're concerned there could be hundreds of victims of this particular racket," he said, "and that this is a very widespread problem in Oakland."

California allows people to work as immigration consultants but prohibits those consultants from advertising themselves as attorneys when they are not and requires them to follow a number of rules designed to make it clear to consumers what they can and cannot do.

Daniel Torres, an attorney for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which also worked with Russo's office, said American Legal Services tricked families both with its name, which suggests it employs legal experts, and through an aggressive advertising campaign that touted its immigration services on fliers distributed throughout immigrant neighborhoods.

Attorneys say the popularity of such consultants in Spanish-speaking communities sometimes stems from confusion about the job title known as "notario publico," which in some Latin American countries signifies a person who can help with travel or immigration documents.

"They can, in some Latin American countries, properly give immigration advice," said Karen Grisez, who chairs the immigration commission at the American Bar Association.

In the United States, however, Grisez said fraudulent consultants "set themselves in neighborhoods heavily populated with Latinos and put themselves, for example, in a travel agency. It's culturally a place where people are used to going to, and the consumer has no idea there's anything wrong with the practice."

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