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(LOS ANGELES) – Attorney General Bill Lockyer today announced he has settled lawsuits against 13 individuals and one Los Angeles business, charged in October 2001 with violating state laws regulating the business of immigration consulting. The judgments include strict supervision by the Attorney General of the closure of one of two large-volume immigration consultant firms sued by the Attorney General and more than $200,000 in civil penalties, costs and restitution. The court order also requires those still in business or who may in the future reenter the immigration consultant business to comply with California's Immigration Consultants Act and other state consumer laws.
"These businesses were ripping off the immigrant community by falsely portraying themselves as law offices, engaging in deceptive advertising and promising various immigration services they could not legally provide," Lockyer said. "Under these judgments, consumers who lost money and came forward to assist us in the prosecution of these cases will be reimbursed, and all individuals who have done business with the firm we are closing down will be able to retrieve their documents so they can pursue immigration services from bonafide immigration attorneys and community organizations that assist in providing immigration services."
The court orders involved two Los Angeles firms: Immigration Solution Center at 1645 West Beverly Boulevard, and Immigration World Wide Services at 1324 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 100. In the case against Immigration Solution Center, two attorneys, Gustavo Zarate and Alexis Torres, and four non-attorneys, Mariela Lizcano, Norma Turcios, Liliam Tawadros and Cinthia Rivera, have settled with the Attorney General's Office. The judgments require them to comply with the provisions of California's Immigration Consultants Act and other California laws prohibiting the unlicensed practice of law and regulating attorney referral services. The defendants who settled have paid $169,000 in civil penalties, attorney's fees and costs and restitution, including $24,000 to 15 victims who came forward.
Trial has been set for October 14 in Los Angeles County Superior Court for the remaining defendants, Immigration Solution Center and its owner, Marina Balladares. The Attorney General's Office is seeking a court order prohibiting Balladares and the company from engaging in false advertising and the unlicensed practice of law. The Attorney General also is seeking a court order requiring Balladares and the company to abide by the Immigration Consultants Act and state law regulating attorney referral services, and to pay restitution, civil penalties, attorney's fees and the costs of the investigation and prosecution.
In a separate case against Immigration World Wide Services, the Attorney General obtained a judgment against owner Jose Mejia that requires him to comply with the Immigration Consultants Act and California laws prohibiting the unlicensed practice of law and regulating attorney referral services. Mejia must close his business by December 23, 2003, under the supervision of a monitor selected by the Attorney General's Office. Mejia is prohibited from entering into new contracts for immigration consultant services by November 8. From November 9 through December 23, he will be under a closely-supervised plan to close down his business. Mejia then will be banned from engaging in immigration consulting through December 22, 2005, and must notify the Attorney General should he resume that line of work after that date.
Under the judgment, more than 5,500 consumers who entered into contracts with or paid more than $20 to Mejia and Immigration World Wide Services since January 1, 1998, will be notified of the opportunity to retrieve their client files, which may contain information critical for future immigration status applications. Mejia also will provide consumers with a list of local free or low-cost service providers, a change of address form they can submit to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) and a brochure published by the Attorney General's Office explaining how to protect themselves when contracting for immigration consultant services.
Mejia must place a notice in La Opinion for five days, advising readers of the date the business will close, the business hours that will be maintained until such closure and that contracts entered into between January 1, 1998, and December 31, 2001, are canceled and no money is owed. Mejia must notify federal immigration authorities of the imminent closure of his business and he is prohibited from collecting $280,000 in accounts receivable from other victims.
Alexis Torres, named in the Immigration Solution Center case, also was a defendant in the Immigration World Wide Services case. Torres and another Immigration World Wide Services attorney, Wesley Sklark, and five non-attorneys, Claudia Garcia, Claudia Arreola, Leticia Gutierrez, Maria Teresa Salazar and Jose Salazar, will pay $26,000 in civil penalties, attorney's fees and costs and restitution relating to their work for Immigration World Wide Services. About $7,800 of that amount will be paid to nine victims who assisted in the case.
In agreeing to these judgments, none of the defendants admits wrongdoing.
The Attorney General has filed 14 other civil actions across the state against immigration consultants who have failed to comply with the law.
"The problem of immigration consultant fraud is at an epidemic level," Lockyer said. "Consumers should be careful when hiring consultants to assist them in immigration-related matters."
Consumers seeking immigration consultant services may go the Attorney General's website at www.ag.ca.gov/immigrant/publications.htm to read Immigration Services – Protecting Your Consumer Rights, which is available in Armenian, Chinese, English, Hmong, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese. Consumers who believe they have been victimized by an unscrupulous immigration consultant may call the Attorney General's Office of Immigrant Assistance at (888) 587-0557.