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(LOS ANGELES) – Attorney General Bill Lockyer today filed civil complaints against three major immigration consultant companies for allegedly taking advantage of immigrant clients by illegally portraying themselves as lawyers, engaging in false advertising and violating state laws regulating immigration consultants.
"We are going after unscrupulous immigration consultants who take advantage of vulnerable Californians knowing that because of language barriers and fear they will not report being victimized," Lockyer said. "Many of these victims are seeking to do the right thing with their applications to the Immigration and Naturalization Service but are being cheated out of hundreds – if not thousands – of dollars through improper legal advice or frivolous INS applications."
The civil complaints were filed in Los Angeles Superior Court against Immigration Solution Center (ISC), Immigration World Wide Services, Inc. (IWSS) and Asian Pacific Legal Services (APLS), all with offices in Los Angeles. ISC alone claims in Internet advertising to have processed 43,000 immigration matters, including applications with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) under the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act of 1997, popularly known as NACARA. The companies charge from $20 for consultation to more than $1,500 for NACARA and fiancé visas. The civil complaints seek injunctive relief, restitution for the victims and civil penalties.
"These cases involve non-attorney immigration consultants who aggressively solicited clients by falsely holding themselves out as a law office, lawyers and immigration specialists promising legal services they cannot provide and falsely guaranteeing favorable and speedy results," Lockyer said. "Without consulting an attorney, the non-attorney defendants advised clients, at times erroneously, whether they were entitled to immigration benefits and got clients to pay to file frivolous immigration applications with the INS."
Lockyer said other consumer protection action could be brought against immigration consultants abuses elsewhere in the state. He urged consumers to be careful about who is consulted on immigration issues, noting that the Attorney General's Office of Immigrant Assistance has developed the brochure, "Immigration Services: Protecting Your Consumer Rights," which is available on the California Department of Justice web site at: http://caag.state.ca.us/immigrant/publications.htm.
Lockyer added that Californians who believe they may be victims of similar abuses by these companies should contact the Attorney General's Office of Immigrant Assistance by calling toll-free 1-888-587-0557. The complaint filed against Immigration Solution Center also names ISC predecessor Proyecto 98 NACARA, company president Marina Balladeras, numerous ISC employees and the Law Offices of Alexis I. Torres, Inc. Advertisements for the company have appeared on billboards, the Internet, Spanish-language television commercials and so-called immigration seminars.
The complaint alleges that ISC, Balladares and its employees since at least May 1999 have engaged in an illegal scheme to sell immigration and other legal services to Latin American immigrants in Los Angeles County in violation of state laws regarding the unauthorized practice of law, false advertising and California's Immigration Consultants Act. The complaint alleges that the company and employees used various means to mislead clients, including the company name of "Law Offices Immigration Solution Center," suggesting that attorneys would be giving legal advice. The complaint states that the non-lawyer defendants failed to disclose to clients that they are not bonded as required by law, not attorneys, not permitted to represent individuals in immigration proceedings before the Board of Immigration Appeals or INS, and not permitted to engage in lawyer referral services. The complaint also states that ISC and its employees routinely submitted immigration applications and correspondence signed by lawyer Alexis I. Torres and claimed Torres as the attorney of record, even though he had never met or spoken to the clients.
The complaint against Immigration World Wide Services, Inc., also names company president Jose Mejia, several employees and lawyers Alexis I. Torres and Wesley Sklark. The complaint alleges that since at least May 1999, IWWS and its employees engaged in an illegal scheme to sell immigration and other legal services to Latin American immigrants. Among other things, the complaint alleges that company employees Jose Mejia and Maria Salazar personally and falsely advised potential clients that they are attorneys with 21 years of experience, when in fact they are not licensed to practice law in California. Other defendants reinforced this misrepresentation by assuring potential clients that IWWS is a law office staffed by lawyers, that they are attorney representatives or attorney assistants and that an attorney would be handling the case, when in fact clients never see or speak to an attorney and are provided advice solely by non-attorneys.
The complaint filed against Asian Pacific Legal Services in Alhambra also names owners Walter Wenko and Miao Huang Wenko; and six lawyers who allegedly allowed their names to be used to further the false impression that legal services were being provided. The complaint states that APLS and its employees have since at least April 1998 engaged in an improper scheme to sell immigration and other legal services, primarily to Chinese-speaking immigrants in the Alhambra and Monterey Park area. Although disbarred in March 1998, Wenko advertised his company in the 1999, 2000 and 2001 Chinese Consumer Yellow Pages for Southern California under the "Attorneys" section. The company also sought to mislead clients by promising legal advice and services and guaranteeing favorable results it could not reasonably assure. The complaint states that clients were harmed by receiving incorrect or incompetent legal advice from non-attorneys under the guise of attorney-client relationships, inaccurate translations of client statements, or had applications or rebuttals denied because of the lack of preparation by the attorneys used by the company.