Rafael Casanova will receive about $10,000 as restitution for the botched immigration paperwork that a consulting company filled out for his wife and daughter, but he will likely have to wait a decade to see his family again. That is because the consulting company he used, American Legal Services (ALS), falsely advertised itself as a legal service where victims were led to believe that they were dealing with attorneys. On Thursday, the city of Oakland announced that it had won a $15.1 million judgment from ALS for defrauding immigrant families “seeking legal residency in the country” — the judgement is likely the largest under California’s Immigration Consultants Act.
According to the judgment, 18 victims — including both legal and undocumented immigrants — will receive between $200 to $6,440, with an additional payment of about $7,600. Two victims had family members that were deported while some are currently in deportation proceedings. Many of the victims were given “false promises of citizenship” and charged “exorbitant fees upfront” while the company “routinely acted against the interests of those seeking help and botched immigration applications, in some cases resulting in deportation proceedings.” The judgment also includes a permanent injunction that prohibits the “company and its members from operating as immigration consultants.” The ALS website now includes a scam alert.
“[ALS] was in this business to make profit and preyed upon people who were vulnerable,” Oakland city attorney Barbara Parker said during a phone interview. “It doesn’t appear to be simple incompetence. They asked for payment upfront and when people came back saying that paperwork was misfiled, they say that they’ll move you up to a higher level attorney, but you’ll have to pay up.”
The scam wasn’t just inclusive of the 18 victims involved. The scam-reporting website Ripoff Report has recurring stories of ALS representatives who threaten immigrants with arrest if they did not pay upfront fees. “He told me that I was in serious trouble and would be arrested in the morning unless I paid full restitution of $1013.00 that moment,” one reviewer stated. “I told him that I did not have that kind of money … I told him that this is a scam and he really got [irate]. He told me you will find out soon enough what I will do to you and hung up on me.”
But Parker is hopeful that the record judgment acts as a deterrent for future fraudsters. She said, “The judgment is important because … it’s a message to these people that it’s a morally bankrupt activity. If you do this, we will come after you and we will recover to the full extent to law. We can bankrupt you.”
Even still, financial repercussions are more band aid than they are permanent solutions for the defrauded immigrants. Some states are advancing efforts to curb immigration fraud — for example, a new state law in Pennsylvania makes it illegal for notaries to give legal advice. The English words “notary public” looks similar to the Spanish words “notario público,” but the latter means a lawyer who has undergone specialized training. Defrauding undocumented immigrants seems to be a “pervasive” event, but until more permanent solutions are created, they will still remain vulnerable because they fear reporting illegal behavior to law enforcement authorities may lead to deportation.