Conning immigrants

By Lauren Rosenfeld

news@sfbg.com

To many of his clients, former immigration attorney Martin Guajardo seemed capable of performing miracles. He claimed to have unique access to judges and immigration officials. He wore slick Italian suits and drove a Rolls Royce. When other attorneys couldn’t help Victor Jimenez, a Mexican waiter from San Mateo, Guajardo promised to save him from deportation for a $15,000 fee.

Jimenez figured that since Guajardo charged high fees and had won tough cases in the past, he must be worth the money.

But Jimenez did not know that Guajardo had been charging clients six to nine times the market rate for services he allegedly failed to deliver. And when Guajardo was forced to resign from the California State Bar two years ago, he illegally continued to advise clients, according to documents filed in a civil lawsuit by the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office.

"The purpose of this case is to put a stop to one of the largest immigration frauds in the Bay Area," said Deputy City Attorney Josh White.

In November, the city filed suit to stop Guajardo from practicing law, seek civil penalties, and demand repayment of unearned fees. It targets the last two years of a three-decade career — after Guajardo resigned from the State Bar of California with disciplinary charges pending. The suit alleges that Guajardo practiced law after his effective disbarment and failed to notify clients he was no longer a lawyer. Additional defendants in the case include the law firm Immigration Practice Group and Christopher Stender, a San Diego attorney who allegedly covered for Guajardo.

Immigration Practice Group closed its doors in San Francisco soon after the city filed the case, and Guajardo vanished as well. He has not responded to the charges filed against him and no one, including Stender, claims to know where he is. Stender declined requests for comment, but in a February declaration for the case, he stated he was unaware of Guajardo’s whereabouts.

In December, Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe, a private firm that filed a class action lawsuit in conjunction with the city’s case, organized a free legal clinic for Guajardo’s former clients. "The line was out the door and around the block," Orrick attorney Mike Aparicio said. "There were hundreds of people."

When the city began an in-depth probe into immigration fraud in San Francisco two years ago, Guajardo soon dominated the investigation. It is usually difficult to build solid fraud cases because victims are often afraid to come forward, and the state bar couldn’t do anything more about Guajardo because he is not a member. But the City Attorney’s Office had the resources and the will to pursue the case.

"We built a network of contacts — nonprofits, academics, private attorneys," White said. "Virtually 100 percent of them had known Guajardo was continuing to practice without a license."

Nora Privitera is a staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and an expert witness in immigration fraud trials. She said Guajardo made a powerful impression on people and gave them false hope.

"When people are desperate, they suspend disbelief," Privitera said. "Hope is like a drug."

Jimenez and his partner, Macrina Mota, have lived in the United States for more than 20 years. They panicked at the thought of deportation and being separated from their six American-born children. Jimenez worked 15-hour days as a waiter to support the family and was willing to sacrifice anything to keep them together.

Guajardo secured a work permit for Jimenez and appealed his case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. While collecting additional fees over the years, Guajardo assured Jimenez that the case was in process and that the court "just takes time," according to Mota. So it was a complete shock to her when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents came to the couple’s home, arrested Jimenez, and told Mota she had to turn herself in to immigration officials the following day. Guajardo failed to tell Jimenez he had in fact lost his case and faced immediate deportation.

"Guys like Guajardo are worse for immigrants than immigration authorities," said Angela Bean, a private immigration attorney who works with some of Guajardo’s former clients. "When he couldn’t get more blood out of the turnip, he’d let them go."

Mota and her children had trouble paying rent after Jimenez’s deportation in December 2008. They were evicted from their home and moved to a shelter for five months. The trauma devastated the couple’s oldest daughter, who attempted suicide shortly after her father’s sudden deportation.

"That was the worst nightmare my family ever lived," Mota said. "Guajardo knew we had a big family. He gives you a lot of hope, and you believe it because you have six kids. You don’t want to be torn apart."

Mota said Guajardo was a powerful presence in court and knew how to work the room, but he was sometimes more humble during private meetings at his office. As a Mexican American and the son of California farm workers, Guajardo appealed to many clients’ cultural roots. He often wore traditional guayabera-style shirts and conversed with them in Spanish.

"He had all the opportunity in the world to empathize with clients who had similar backgrounds," immigration attorney Angela Bean said. "He was in a unique position to understand their issues and fears — but instead he exploited those fears for his own economic advantage."

Bean said some of Guajardo’s clients mortgaged their homes to pay fees that reached tens of thousands of dollars. One victim was Jagdeep Singh, a convenience store cashier who lived in Contra Costa County with his U.S. citizen wife and children. Guajardo told Singh to stay in the United States and promised he would obtain a green card, according to Singh’s declaration for the case.

"Sometimes we waited three to four hours to see him," said Singh. "He didn’t seem to know the details of my case very well. He asked me to pay more money every time I came to meet with him."

Singh borrowed from relatives, spent his savings, and contributed large portions of his salary to pay Guajardo $95,000 over the course of three years. He later discovered that the best chance for his case was to voluntarily return to India.

The state bar disciplined Guajardo three times in the 1990s for taking thousands of dollars from clients while neglecting to take action in their cases. Documents filed in the lawsuit claim that he refused to refund fees for work he promised but never performed.

The class action lawsuit also alleges that Guajardo sexually coerced female clients. In the case of one woman whom Bean characterized as a domestic violence victim, he "filed frivolous petitions that had no hope of success and instead ‘engaged in a pattern of sexual misconduct with her over the course of nearly six years,’ " according to the suit, which quoted from several other lawsuits involving Guajardo.

Finally in 2007, the state bar brought multiple charges against Guajardo "alleging that he continued to charge excessive or unconscionable fees for inadequate representation," according to the city’s lawsuit.

With the threat of disbarment looming, Guajardo voluntarily resigned in 2008 — but not before changing his firm’s name from "Martin Resendez Guajardo, A Professional Corporation" to "Immigration Practice Group (IPG)" and making Christopher Stender the CEO.

But IPG and Christopher Stender were just fronts for Guajardo, who continued to run the show, the city alleges in court documents. Plaintiffs say Guajardo maintained control over their cases and never revealed that he was ineligible to practice law.

On March 18, a judge approved the city’s motion for a preliminary
injunction barring Stender and IPG from doing any legal work on
Guajardo’s behalf and requiring them to notify his clients that he’s
ineligible to practice law.

Attempts to reach Guajardo were unsuccessful, and city officials say they don’t know where he is or if he has retained an attorney. Stender’s attorney, Kristin Caverly, told the Guardian: "We are not able to provide comments to the press at this time given the ongoing litigation."

White said that an important goal of the civil suit is to get the word out to immigrants so that they look into attorneys’ backgrounds before hiring them. "If clients had gone to the state bar website," White said, "they would have seen that Guajardo resigned in April 2008."