Immigrants Warned on Consultants : Unscrupulous, Inept Advisers Deal in False Promises, Coalition Says

Times Staff Writer

Mexican immigrant Jose Del Rio Torres paid a consultant $1,000 for services that would supposedly give him the legal status he coveted.

But after waiting 2 years, the 47-year-old welder who now lives in Santa Ana has yet to receive the paperwork that would qualify him for legal residency.

Torres' case was spotlighted Wednesday by a prosecutor and immigration rights advocates who issued a joint warning against unscrupulous--and incompetent--consulting services.

Many applicants seeking legal residence pay fees ranging from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars to consultants who make false promises, according to Teresa R. Mendoza of the Orange County Coalition for Immigrant Rights in Santa Ana.

Because of deportation fears, "a lot of the immigrant community will take these types of abuses without a whole lot of publicity," she said. "It's difficult to get people to come forward."

People such as notary publics, attorneys, tax accountants and at least one travel agent have become consultants, Mendoza said. "Everybody has come out of the woodwork to do it." They use names such as law center, tax service, amnesty assistance and immigration counseling, she added.

About 10 people a week take their complaints about dishonest consultants to the Orange County coalition. The district attorney's office investigated about 40 of these cases during the last 2 years, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. Wendy Brough. In most cases, the district attorney's office resolves problems through mediation by obtaining the work or documents promised. In other cases, search warrants are issued.

"Fraud is too strong of a word" to describe some of these consultants, Brough said. "Many of the complaints . . . were the result of ineptitude rather than fraud." She noted that some complaints were for overcharging; fees are not subject to regulation.

Consultants charge "whatever the market will bear," she said. "That's why I urge caution."

At a news conference Wednesday in Santa Ana, officials suggested these precautions:

- Only photocopies of documentation requested by the Immigration and Naturalization Service such as rent receipts and paycheck stubs should be given to the consultant, she said. Some people have complained that consultants have withheld critical documents to guarantee what they have demanded in payment.

- Applicants should also be wary of people falsely claiming to receive special treatment because they have an "in" with the INS, Brough said.

- State law requires contracts to have provisions that allow applicants to back out within 72 hours.

- The INS will not excuse deadlines missed because of consultants, Brough said. "The person is simply out of luck."

Father Jaime Soto, chairman of the coalition, urged people seeking a consultant's advice to ask such questions as whether the consultant is also an attorney, what service will be provided and how much it will cost.

"I would not make the claim that all immigration consultants are fraudulent," Soto said. "People should be informed of the decisions they should make when looking for the services they need."

But Soto added: "No one can guarantee you that (residency) is going to happen."

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