Undocumented Immigrants Ripped Off - New York News

Undocumented Immigrants Ripped Off

They were trying to do the right legal thing. That is how undocumented immigrants we talked to describe it. They just ended up going to the wrong people, attorneys with suspended licenses, or fakes who didn’t even have a license to begin with.

Maria Gutierrez is one of those immigrants. The 60-something mother of four has been in this country for many years, yet she’s always been afraid. She wanted so badly to get “out of the shadows”, as how she explains it, but did not trust anyone “official”. A family friend who was staying at her home offered to help. Fidel Marquez Cortez was a good talker, really good. He convinced Gutierrez that he could help her get her green card, According to Gutierrez, he said all she needed to give him was a few thousand dollars.

Trusting the family friend, Gutierrez cooked tamales, cleaned homes, babysat children, sewed clothes, whatever she could to gather the money. Cortez showed her paperwork with letterhead from a law firm confirming payment and the filing of several documents. She even got phone calls from the legal office, asking her for details and confirming her papers where going through. Yet, every time she asked Cortez about her status, he would answer by asking for more money. How much money? Over $80,000 by the time she said “no more”! The paperwork was fake; the calls were friends of Cortez who appear to have been in on the scam. She says he threatened to call the INS on her if she told anyone about the situation. She got threatening phone calls from people saying they were police or children service officers. She was terrified.

By the time a friend took her to the Los Angeles office of the Public Counsel Law Center, she was out of money and too afraid to care anymore. Attorneys there did help her, for free. Gutierrez now has a case against Cortez, who is on the run, and a special U visa from victims of crimes.

“This poor woman is not alone”, says her present attorney Gina Amato-Lough. “Notario fraud is common”, she adds, explaining “notarios” are common in Spanish-speaking areas, where they sell themselves as legal assistants, even though they are not permitted to practice immigration law (or any other law, for that matter). Still, thousands of people use them.

“I saw the degrees on the wall” adds another victim. Fabiana, who doesn’t want to use her last name, is among several victims named in a search warrant served at the Hacienda Heights home of Michael John Hernandez. He had offices in Montebello, where he would take money for immigration services. But he always asked for more, and according to the victims, he stopped returning calls when they got angry that they hadn’t received a single permit, green card, or notice.

“I trusted him”, says a crying Fabiana, “I just wanted to better myself for my children; I was desperate for my papers”. Next to her, another young woman, Maria, speaks in perfect English” “my case was easy, just a work permit renewal. He took my money and he disappeared. Now, she explains, she really needs an attorney to represent her with the INS, which believes she filed fraudulent forms. Neither of them has money, claiming they gave thousands of dollars to the “dashing, nice, well-spoken man” they trusted.

We caught up with Hernandez, first next door to the Hacienda Heights home where the owner says Hernandez owes him several months’ worth of rent. FOX 11 was also in a Los Angeles courtroom, where Hernandez is being charged with several counts of grand theft, perjury and unauthorized practice of law. Turns out, he did have a license to practice in Florida, but it has been suspended several times. According to the Florida State Bar, he is not allowed to practice law at this point. Hernandez left the courthouse without comment, but it is estimated he took thousands of dollars from victims. His attorneys will not return our calls.

“I don’t think I’ll ever see my money”, says Fabiana, “but it’s not about that. I just don’t want to see him do it to someone else”.

Amato-Lough puts it this way, “these are people who are coming out of the shadows. Doing everything possible to follow the existing legal process, and they are getting robbed by these “she pauses, looking for words, “monsters who pray on the most vulnerable of their own people”.

The Public Counsel Law Center says there are several ways for you to check out anyone offering you legal services to help you with an immigration case. We’ve put together a list for you.

Non Profits

·         Public Counsel Law Center:  Nation’s largest pro bono law firm. Los Angeles office: (213) 385-9089  http://www.publicounsel.org

·         National non-proft organization dedicated to increasing access to justice through innovative uses of technology and increased volunteer lawyer participation. http://www.probono.net

·         Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles provides free legal assistance for US Citizens, permanent residents, refugees and asylum seekers with assistance in family reunification matters.Several offices: Central L.A. (213) 640-3881 or www.lafla.org

California State Bar

·         Official Site California State Bar – http://members.calbar.ca.gov/fal/MemberSearch

U.S. Department of Justice

·         Has a list of free legal services providers for every state at www.justice.gov/oeir/probono.states.htm

U.S. Department of Immigration

·         US Citizenship and Immigration services has a whole page on avoiding scams and fake attorneys. At www.uscis.gov/avoid-scams/find-legal-services

Foreign Consulates in Los Angeles

·         For a complete list with contacts, go to to: http://consulate-los-angeles.com/


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