City Attorney files lawsuit against immigration consultants
on February 3, 2010
Prospective clients were first drawn in by fliers on their car windshields that advertised “Legal services without the attorney price” and blue banners that decorated an office façade that read “All Your Immigration Needs.”
Those fliers and signs led hopeful immigrants to American Legal Services, an immigration consultancy with offices in Oakland’s Fruitvale District, the Eastmont Mall and the Diamond District.
Fruitvale resident Victor Gomez lives just blocks from the company’s second floor office above a beauty salon, taquería and convenience store on the corner of 35th and International Boulevard. On days when the office is open, a folding sign on the sidewalk lists “immigration,” “work permit,” “divorce” and “probate” among the services offered.
In 2008, Gomez ventured in with his family to find out if it was possible for him, a 21-year-old U.S.-born citizen, to sponsor his parents to become legal residents. His parents, who asked to keep their names confidential, immigrated illegally from Mexico decades before, he said. “They told us, ‘We can help you guys,’” he remembers of that first consultation. “They convinced us everything would be OK.”
Gomez said the owners of American Legal Services, couple Musa Bala Baldé and Irene Penaloza Baldé (better known as Aiesha Baldé), as well as an employee, asked for $7,000 to process the paperwork for his parents with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The steep price tag didn’t faze the family, who believed all three to be attorneys, he said. “We didn’t care, we said OK, it was for a good reason,” Gomez said of the fee.
But according to a civil suit filed Thursday by Oakland City Attorney John Russo against the business, once clients paid American Legal Services large sums of money to handle their immigration cases, their immigration status could be put in greater jeopardy than ever before. The complaint alleges that since 2007, the company has not only made false promises to clients, but also irreparably damaged their cases by counseling them to apply for immigration benefits even when they were not eligible or by filing the wrong applications with immigration authorities.
The lawsuit, which was filed in Alameda County Superior Court, names American Legal Services, the Baldés and one employee as defendants. They are charged with the unauthorized practice of law, violating state regulations for immigration consultants and making false statements in an immigration matter.
The lawsuit seeks restitution and damages of $150,000 for six alleged victims, as well as civil penalties up to $8.2 million for 82 named violations of state law.
In the months after the Gomez family filed their paperwork, they waited for news from the company. Finally, last spring, Gomez said, the staff got in touch with an update: the family’s application had been rejected. A child born in the U.S. could only sponsor a parent’s visa if the petition was filed by 2001. The Gomez family was seven years too late to apply for the benefit. “And then I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me that before?” Gomez remembers.
Because of the erroneous application, immigration authorities were tipped off about his parents’ undocumented status, Gomez said. The couple is now facing deportation and separation from Victor, now 22, and his younger siblings, ages 20 and 14, Gomez said.
“It’s hard to imagine that they didn’t know that they were putting people into removal proceedings and that they were taking people’s money even when they had no options,” Jesse Newmark, an attorney with the Oakland City Attorney’s Neighborhood Law Corps, said of the defendants.
Dan Torres, a staff attorney at San Francisco’s Immigrant Legal Resource Center who is collaborating with Russo’s office, said it is common for fraudulent immigration practitioners to mention an old law that might sound familiar to convince prospective clients that they are eligible for a benefit. “They take a grain of truth and sell it for something that it is not,” Torres said.
The Baldés could not be reached for comment despite several phone messages left at their business offices and home phone number.
In addition to the Gomez family, Newmark said his office is in touch with five other parties—all from Latin American or Middle Eastern countries—who paid thousands of dollars for immigration applications that were allegedly botched by the business. Newmark said his office expects more clients to come forward. No alleged victims are named in the suit, but Russo’s office is seeking damages and restitution on their behalf.
The lawsuit alleges that the Baldés and their employee broke the law by posing as lawyers, advertising legal services and providing legal advice without being licensed attorneys. “Even the name itself is a violation of the law,” said Newmark of the name “American Legal Services.”
Musa Bala Baldé is a registered immigration consultant with the state. Most immigration consultants charge lower rates than attorneys and are supposed to serve immigrants who need non-legal assistance filling out forms.
State regulations require immigration consultants to disclose that they are not attorneys on office signs and in all advertisements, as well as provide contracts and receipts to clients, which the complaint alleges American Legal Services failed to do.
Among other instances of unethical behavior, the complaint alleges that when two clients complained about how their cases were handled, the Baldés refused to reimburse them and instead informed them that their employee had stolen their money and instructed the clients to file a police report against her.
Immigrant advocates say the problem of fraud is widespread since immigrants who don’t speak English or know the ins and outs of the byzantine immigration system are easily manipulated. Just a few blocks down International Boulevard from American Legal Services, Centro Legal de la Raza holds a monthly legal clinic where immigrants who have been defrauded by consultants or attorneys regularly turn up looking for advice. “We see at least one case of fraud per month at that clinic and sometimes many more,” said Legal Services Director Allison Davenport, who also worked with Russo’s office on the suit. “And those are just the people who come to our clinic, so we know there are many more out there and many who never seek help out and get proper legal advice.”
When it comes to cracking down on fraudulent immigration practitioners, finding victims who want to speak out can be the hardest part, said Amy Ariyoshi, Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney. In 2006, Ariyoshi successfully prosecuted Ramon Rodriguez on charges of grand theft by false pretenses, for which he is serving a four-year prison sentence. The Rodriguez case was one of the most recent major immigration consultant fraud cases to be prosecuted in the Bay Area.
But immigration related cases have extra complications, Ariyoshi said. “By the time that law enforcement gets wind of it, a lot of these victims are already in deportation proceedings.”
At City Hall last Thursday, Russo indicated that his office had been interested in addressing the problem of fraudulent immigration consultants for some time, but first needed clients who had been wronged to come forward. “You need a tremendous amount of courage,” he said of the victims who agreed to share their stories. “Courage that I don’t think I would have.”
Russo announced that he would file future suits against other Oakland immigration consultants should evidence come to light that they are defrauding immigrants. “We are watching you,” he warned.
As for Gomez, he was nervous at first to alert authorities for fear he might make his parents’ case in immigration court worse. But the desire to take action trumped those concerns and he provided Russo’s office with information about his family’s case. “I hope to see results and that everybody gets their money back, and at least take those guys out of business,” he said.
But hours after the charges were filed, people who knew the Baldés personally were skeptical of the allegations against the couple. Samantha Lee, 27, whose family owns Yumi’s Market, a convenience store downstairs from the American Legal Services office on 35th Avenue, was concerned that the lawsuit may have been the result of a severe misunderstanding. “They are very educated and very polite,” she said about the Baldés, who would often stop by the store to buy snacks and say hello. “I would take my services to them.”
The couple, who are both immigrants themselves, have a record of religious and civil leadership in Alameda where they live. They founded the Islamic Center of Alameda in 1996, where Musa Bala Baldé is the imam.
Aiesha Baldé served as a tenant member of the Alameda Housing Commission from 2006 to 2009 and has been active in Alameda public schools. In a biography she submitted to an Alameda public access television show on which she appeared as a guest in 2007, she said she is a mother of five.
Aiesha Baldé emigrated from the Philippines. According to a website for the Timbuktu Education Foundation, an organization that Musa Bala Baldé heads, he came to the U.S. in 1980 after growing up in Africa and Europe.
At the Islamic Center of Alameda last Thursday night, a group of children romped as they waited for their evening Arabic study class to begin, while four men prayed together. Afterwards, one of the men, Shukrullah Kohgadi, 60, an Afghani immigrant who lives in Alameda, spoke respectfully of Musa Bala Balde’s leadership of the center. “He is a great person,” he said. “He is doing very good work here.”
Immigrant rights advocates hope the lawsuit will send a message to practitioners all over. “Maybe some of these irresponsible or fraudulent people will say ‘Oh I’m being watched, I should be more careful,’” said Susan Bowyer, managing attorney at the Oakland office of the International Institute of the Bay Area.
She said in addition to fraud, there is general confusion and misinformation in the immigrant community that can cause people to ruin their chances to legalize their status. “If we could have big consultation sessions every week in every community of the Bay Area, it would be a great thing,” Bowyer said.
In fact, the City Attorney’s office has planned at least one such meeting for all of Oakland. On Feb 27 the Neighborhood Law Corps will host a workshop at City Hall from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. to educate immigrants about how to avoid being defrauded and link them with reputable local immigration attorneys. There will be Spanish, Mandarin and Vietnamese translation and free parking available in the Clay Street garage.
Lead image: The American Legal Services office at 35th and International Boulevard.
Oakland North welcomes comments from our readers, but we ask users to keep all discussion civil and on-topic. Comments post automatically without review from our staff, but we reserve the right to delete material that is libelous, a personal attack, or spam. We request that commenters consistently use the same login name. Comments from the same user posted under multiple aliases may be deleted. Oakland North assumes no liability for comments posted to the site and no endorsement is implied; commenters are solely responsible for their own content.
Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: email@example.com.