Conning immigrants

Lawsuit alleges former attorney bilked desperate clients who faced deportation

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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.