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Aiding or Exploiting?

When undocumented immigrants get bad legal advice from people unlicensed to practice law, they can end up deported—while the service provider is free to continue doing business.

Illustration: John Kenzie

Nearly two decades after fleeing violence in Mexico to start a new life, Miguel stepped into a brick storefront on Fullerton Avenue near Logan Square hoping to cement his place in the U.S.

It was December 2009. Miguel, his wife Diana, and daughter Isabel, were seeking the help of Paul Leyva, a middle-aged businessman with a receding hairline and friendly round face. (The youngest daughter, Maria, who spoke with Chicago for this story, asked that all of their names be changed to protect their identities from further legal retaliation.)

Leyva had helped Diana and two of their daughters obtain green cards. They trusted him to help Miguel apply for one also. But what transpired in his office on this winter day would, in fact, have the opposite result—not only was Miguel’s application rejected, but immigration lawyers say that the forms Leyva filled out on Miguel’s behalf likely alerted federal authorities of a past criminal conviction, and of his undocumented status. They say this prompted authorities to detain and, eventually, deport Miguel from the country that he’d called home for nearly half his life.

Leyva is not an attorney, one of hundreds of people without law licenses who are permitted to provide immigration services in the Chicago area. Many of them are notaries. For immigrants, they represent an affordable alternative to immigration lawyers, offering guidance through a complex immigration system that experts say can take years to navigate. Although non-attorneys are allowed to provide immigration forms, help clients fill them out, and offer some other services, they’re prohibited from offering legal advice.

But some do anyway.

In 2013, Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection conducted undercover investigations into the practices of non-attorneys offering immigration services. The probe found more than 100 violations: immigrants were charged exorbitant fees, given unauthorized legal advice, and promised impossible results, according to records provided by the BACP. Of the 55 businesses investigated in 2013, 48 of them had violations, many of which resulted in fines.

During that crackdown, Leyva was fined $4,200 for 29 separate violations of its rules for immigration assistance providers, according to records from BACP. Among those violations were offering unauthorized legal advice, misrepresenting immigration laws, failing to provide customers with written contracts, overcharging, and failing to post signage disclosing rules and regulations. In one case, Leyva attempted to charge $995 for completing an immigration form. Under city ordinance, the maximum fee for filling out a form is $75.

However, immigration service providers rarely face more serious consequences, in large part because most violations go unreported, according to five immigration law experts from agencies serving Chicago. Many victims are hesitant to contact authorities because of their immigration status. Even when a complaint is filed, authorities say they’re unable to take action because the claims are difficult to prove and complainants lack documentation of any wrongdoing.

The channels for reporting these bad actors are not clear, either. Several municipal- and state-level agencies, as well as at least three federal entities, monitor service providers and track complaints against them. Experts say these agencies don’t communicate with each other, making it even more difficult to track problematic providers, many of whom change locations to avoid scrutiny. Employees within the agencies say they lack the resources to investigate service providers, leading to a cottage industry where undocumented immigrants—desperate for help during a tumultuous time—may be easily exploited.

 

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When Miguel stepped into Leyva’s office to apply for his green card in 2009, he didn’t know that, because of a past drug conviction, he was not eligible to apply for a green card. So, when Leyva asked if Miguel had ever been arrested or committed a crime, the applicant said yes, he had been convicted of felony possession of cocaine in 1999, according to affidavits signed by Miguel, his wife,­­ and Isabel, which were later filed with Illinois’s Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, an arm of the state Supreme Court that investigates complaints against lawyers or people acting as lawyers.

Leyva assured Miguel that he could still apply for a green card, according to the family’s affidavits, and when Miguel asked Leyva if he would need an attorney because of his criminal background, Leyva said no. On the part of the form that asks if the applicant has a criminal record, Leyva marked “No,” as seen on a copy provided to Chicago. He never told Miguel that he did this, the family asserts on signed affidavits filed to the ARDC.

The affidavits were shared with Chicago by Royal Berg, a prominent immigration lawyer who is now representing the family. Berg has served on several national and local immigration law boards. On behalf of the family, he filed a complaint to the ARDC, alleging that Leyva gave Miguel unauthorized legal advice and that he knowingly put false information on Miguel’s immigration forms. Miguel “was placed in deportation [removal] proceedings as a result of the incorrect legal advice which Mr. Leyva gave him,” Berg wrote in the complaint. The ARDC opened an investigation.

In a response to the ARDC’s inquiries, Samuel J. Manella, an attorney who represented Leyva for the case, wrote that Miguel “did not inform Mr. Leyva that he was ever arrested,” according to a letter from Berg that quoted the correspondence. The ARDC eventually concluded that there was insufficient evidence to pursue charges against Leyva, though the commission was able to secure a refund for Miguel’s family from Leyva. The refund was for about $400, says Miguel’s daughter Maria. By supplying the refund, Leyva did not admit any wrongdoing.

When Chicago reporters visited Leyva’s office in Norridge to discuss the case, he said, “I’m not interested.” Additional requests for comment to both Leyva and Manella have gone unanswered.

 

An immigration practitioner should have known that Miguel’s application would be denied, according to five immigration lawyers interviewed by Chicago who say they would have never advised Miguel to apply for his green card due to his criminal record. What he should have done instead, lawyers say, is focus on getting his record expunged before applying for citizenship—after all, as the family asserts in signed affidavits, the conviction had happened 20 years prior to his application and he had completed the community service that was required by the court.

While the details of Miguel and Leyva’s 2009 encounter are in dispute, what happened afterward is indisputable. Less than a year after that meeting, Miguel received a letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services informing him that his application had been denied. In 2013, Miguel received a subpoena to appear in court, and the next year, ICE agents showed up at the family’s Southwest Side home and detained him. He was transferred to ICE’s detention center in downstate Pulaski County and charged with entering the country illegally and being convicted for possession of a controlled substance while undocumented.

The family fought to delay his removal. But when Miguel’s final deportation order arrived in the mail in late 2016, his daughter Maria decided that her family was done dealing with Leyva. “My dad kept giving Leyva more and more money because he was supposed to be fixing all of this,” Maria tells Chicago. “And I told my dad, ‘Stop giving this guy money… he’s getting you nowhere.’”

She asked a coworker for help finding a lawyer and was referred to Berg. Her husband then took out a loan to pay him. Berg’s first letter to the ARDC was sent in December 2016. But it was too late. In early January 2017, ICE officers put him on a flight to Mexico City. From there, he returned to his hometown of La Barca.

“Having my husband taken away has been devastating to me and our whole family,” Diana wrote in her signed affidavit, as part of the documents submitted to the state commission. “He is suffering in Mexico, and I fear for his safety.”

His chances of returning to the U.S. are uncertain.

Berg says authorities likely learned of Miguel’s drug conviction while running a background check using fingerprints submitted as part of the application. When USCIS got flagged, they almost certainly informed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, Berg says.

“A person with that type of conviction should not apply [for citizenship] because it would lead to arrest or deportation,” says Berg. “It was exactly the wrong advice that got him deported.”

 

Non-attorneys servicing immigrants today have no shortage of customers due to increased immigration enforcement under the Trump administration, according to experts in immigration law. Caroline Shoenberger, supervisor of the immigration program at Chicago Legal Clinic, says immigrants are most vulnerable after changes to immigration laws or during government crackdowns on illegal immigration, both of which are happening now.

Weeks after taking office in January, President Donald Trump signed a series of executive orders on immigration enforcement. Over the next 100 days, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested nearly 40 percent more individuals than over the same period last year. More recently, President Trump began phasing out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that protects from deportation individuals who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Without action from Congress, the government could begin arresting and deporting DACA-status recipients as early as March.

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Especially in uncertain times, Shoenberger says people are less likely to fully verify the credentials of an immigration attorney or practitioner. Many of her clients, when told that there is nothing else to be done in their cases, will continue seeking advice from different people until they get the answer they want. “There’s such a level of panic right now,” says Shoenberger, who used to head the city’s consumer services division. “The DACA announcement terrorized a lot of people.”

Vanessa Esparza-López, managing attorney with the Immigrant Legal Defense Project of the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center, an organization that provides free and low-cost legal services to immigrants, says her organization is contacted at least once every month by individuals who say non-lawyer practitioners gave them improper advice, took their money, or promised them immigration benefits they did not receive.

But most cases of “immigration fraud” or “notario fraud” (terms used to describe the illegal practice of non-attorneys giving legal advice) go unreported, Shoenberger and Esparza-López say. Victims are often fearful of contacting authorities because of their immigration status, they say, or because they’re embarrassed to admit they have been taken advantage of.

Protesters rallied around the Chicago area after the Trump administration announced it would begin to phase out the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program, including this one in downtown Chicago. Photo: Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune
A “Rally Against Hate” demonstration at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library. Photo: Brian O’Mahoney/ Pioneer Press

No agency, at either the federal or state level, has been able to accurately track immigration fraud, let alone stop immigration service providers from giving bad advice to their clients. Tanisha Bowens-McCatty, associate director of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration, says that tracking immigration fraud is difficult because many providers shift locations to avoid getting caught, moving in and out of jurisdictions or crossing state lines and making it nearly impossible for regulators to pin them down.

The avenues for reporting these bad actors are not clear, either. In addition to city consumer protection departments, state attorneys general, and agencies like Illinois’s ARDC, at least three federal entities monitor immigration fraud and/or track complaints about unauthorized practice of law by immigration providers: the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, and USCIS.

Each of these agencies has the authority to conduct investigations and impose different types of punishments on bad actors. Chicago’s BACP, for example, can fine violators and suspend their business licenses, whereas state attorneys general and entities like ARDC that oversee lawyers can pursue criminal or civil charges. But deciphering each of the agencies’ roles is incredibly complicated.

Even when complaints are filed, the systems used by the agencies don’t communicate with each other, Bowens-McCatty says. Because of all these factors, it’s difficult to measure the scope of immigration fraud.

“Until we can get [additional] data and understand the issue better, we won’t see the trend change,” Bowens-McCatty says. “It’s really a hidden issue.”

 

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In February, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued an alert warning immigrants about potential fraud in the wake of Trump’s executive orders on immigration. Of the nearly 24,000 consumer complaints received last year by the Attorney General’s office, only 25 pertained to immigration service providers. In April, she made the rare move of suing a Joliet immigration service provider named Norma Bonilla, alleging that she defrauded a Chicago family out of more than $10,000 for unlicensed immigration services.

“This scam exploited immigrants at a time when many are seeking assistance due to the recent federal executive actions,” Madigan said in a statement released by her office at the time. “Preying on immigrants’ fears and confusion is an appalling scheme, and this lawsuit seeks to stop this fraud.”

But this type of legal action is uncommon. Madigan’s office says it received one complaint about Leyva in 2008, 2010, 2013, and another in 2015. Only in the 2013 case did the office find enough cause to secure a refund. That complaint is similar to Miguel’s, according to public records obtained by Chicago: The client alleges that Leyva told him he could apply for a work permit despite having a DUI conviction on his record. In a response to the AG’s office, Leyva wrote that, “in all fairness, I do not believe we fully explained this to [the customer] when he applied for Deferred Action. With this, I agree with you and I will refund an additional $465 to [the customer], which I will mail to you today.”

The customer did not request additional action to be taken against Leyva, and Madigan’s office did not pursue further discipline. (When it comes to these complaints, the Attorney General seeks only to facilitate “recourse” for the complainant, which is usually a refund, according to Annie Thompson, a spokesperson for the office.)

Another customer of Leyva’s, Gerardo Rosa, told Chicago that in 2004 Leyva filled out paperwork on behalf of his wife, Juana Salas. Her application was eventually denied, and Salas had to return to Mexico. Rosa remained in Chicago, working with the nonprofit NIJC to complete paperwork so that Salas could return to the U.S.

Rosa and Salas say they did not file complaints with any of the government agencies about Leyva. “We thought that the case was lost completely, so we didn’t pursue the case until we had [assistance from NIJC],” says Rosa, adding that he wouldn’t have known how to file a complaint anyway. “I didn’t have no idea.”

Immigration experts say that the volume of complaints is important for groups like the ARDC and Attorney General, which monitor a wide range of complaints from across the state. Those two agencies typically require a larger volume of complaints to pursue charges against a service provider, whereas the city is able to take action after a single complaint. 

For Leyva or any other provider, the Attorney General’s office encourages residents who think they’ve been misled or wronged to come forward with complaints, according to Thompson. The Attorney General “monitors” all providers about whom they’ve received complaints, Thompson says.

 

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After being deported, Miguel returned to his hometown of La Barca, about 65 miles southeast of Guadalajara, where he is helping manage his father’s crops, his daughter Maria tells Chicago. La Barca has been synonymous with high rates of violence for decades, so much so that U.S. government personnel are banned from stopping in the town for any reason.

Diana, who has a green card, mostly stays with him in Mexico but travels back to the U.S. regularly. Miguel, now 55, is in poor health, and hasn’t seen his three daughters since Dec. 14, the day ICE took him into custody.

“We now know that my husband should not have applied for permanent [residency], and that he should have sought out the [advice] of an immigration attorney,” Diana wrote in her signed affidavit to the ARDC. “Mr. Leyva clearly was interested only in our money. He either did not know the law or did not care what happened to my husband.”

Miguel and Diana married in Mexico in 1984, and, six years later, crossed the U.S. border together after deciding to leave their home country out of fear for their safety. The two eventually settled into a home near 55th Street and Pulaski Road in Chicago’s West Elsdon neighborhood. Miguel landed a job at an insurance restoration business, responding to fires and other emergencies to clean carpets and provide repair estimates.

When their daughter Isabel married and eventually obtained citizenship, it gave Miguel and Diana their first chance to apply for green cards. In the U.S., citizens can petition for their parents to receive permanent residency.

“He was very excited to apply and get things going,” says Maria, who lives in Chicago. By that point, he had been helping care for Maria’s children, taking them out to eat, and picking them up from school. “When I got separated from my first marriage, he was the one helping me raise my kids,” she says.

This summer, Maria sent two of her three children to La Barca to spend the summer with him. FaceTime and Snapchat sessions offered a glimpse into her father’s new life.

“I mean, he seems very happy, but I know all that happiness is going to disappear as soon as the girls leave,” says Maria, who adds she is constantly concerned about her father’s safety in his hometown.

The family holds out hope that more people might come forward and file complaints against Leyva, something the Attorney General’s office says could lead to further scrutiny. If that happens, Berg says, the ARDC may reopen the investigation; if it subsequently rules against Leyva, Miguel could be eligible for a waiver to re-enter the country despite his record. He’d need to get the super-rare S visa, which is granted to individuals who provide information that assists law enforcement in investigating or prosecuting criminals.

Berg also says he’s been advocating for a potential change to Illinois law that would make it easier for non-citizens to get past convictions overturned, which could help Miguel’s chances of returning.

In addition to his wife and three adult daughters, Miguel has 12 grandchildren, all U.S. citizens.

“I know he’s angry. I know he’s hurt,” Maria says. “All he wants to do is come back home. He says, ‘I worked so hard all these years and someone just took everything away from me.’”

Want to contact the authors of this report with additional information or feedback? Reach Alex Ruppenthal here or Maya Miller here. You can follow them on Twitter at @arupp and @mayatmiller.

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