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Nationwide program cracks down on scam artists who prey on immigrants in need of legal help

The man held himself out to be a good Christian, going out of his way to provide low-cost legal help to immigrants in desperate need.

His swanky business card, emblazoned with his face and the words “Attorney at Law,” was passed from detainee to detainee at a San Pedro holding center. Purporting to be an attorney for a nonprofit Christian foundation, the man appeared at hearings alongside immigrants facing deportation and filed legal documents with the court.

In reality, not only was Raul Ernest Alonso-Prieto not an attorney, he was a convicted scam artist, a Cuban national who himself had been ordered deported for identity theft. Most of the people who shelled out as much as $2,500 for his services were ultimately ordered deported when he didn’t show up in court or fumbled at hearings, according to authorities.

This week, an array of federal, state and local law enforcement and immigration agencies announced a nationwide effort to crack down on people like Alonso-Prieto who prey on immigrants in need of legal help.

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Hoping to target an elusive corner of immigration law where victims are reluctant to come forward and prosecutions are time-consuming and complex, officials said they were launching a large-scale public education campaign in English, Spanish and 12 other languages in addition to renewed law enforcement efforts.

“We are just beginning to tackle this problem,” Assistant Atty. Gen. Tony West said in a news conference in Washington, D.C., that was telecast to seven cities across the country, including Los Angeles, where the initiative will be focused. The scams “not only rob victims of money and trust in our system, but they undermine the integrity of our justice system,” he said.

As part of the initiative, headed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, officials said they would work to increase the pool of legitimate attorneys providing low-cost or pro bono immigration help, and would inform the public on how they can report scams and get their money back.

“We know we can’t prosecute our way out of this problem,” West said.

Scam artists have long exploited immigrants facing language barriers and byzantine legal procedures in schemes big and small. Websites resembling official U.S. government Web pages have charged fees for forms that are available free. Perpetrators have posed as attorneys or consultants purporting to know of a special law or have a connection that will help immigrants gain legal status. Some have filed applications on behalf of immigrants for avenues to citizenship they did not qualify for, bilking them out of thousands of dollars in fees in the process.

A persistent and widespread problem is misunderstanding over the Spanish term notarios, which in many Latin American countries signifies people eligible to practice law. Some notaries public in the U.S., who are eligible only to witness signing of documents, have seized on the confusion and cheated immigrants out of fees for legal services.

“Quite frankly, they’re scum artists in my humble opinion,” U.S. Atty. André Birotte Jr. said.

At Thursday’s news conference, some representatives of foreign-language media expressed exasperation at the slow pace of enforcement and what they said was blatant and prevalent advertising for suspicious immigration services.

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One reporter from a Spanish-language radio show said the station’s listeners were often calling in to ask, “Why is it taking so long to go after these vendors?” Another Spanish-language media representative said ads promising amnesty or announcing passage of new laws were ubiquitous in newspapers and television channels targeting Latinos.

Law enforcement officials responded that because of elaborate financial structures and reluctant victims worried about jeopardizing their own cases, immigration fraud cases were complex and time-consuming.

Alonso-Prieto, the scam artist, eventually was arrested and charged with usurping the identities of a deceased Florida attorney and a California attorney after his victims notified authorities of his scams. He pleaded guilty to mail fraud and aggravated identity theft.

Last year, he was sentenced last year to 61 months in federal prison.

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victoria.kim@latimes.com


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