Conning immigrants - Page 2

Lawsuit alleges former attorney bilked desperate clients who faced deportation


So it was a complete shock to her when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents came to the couple's home, arrested Jimenez, and told Mota she had to turn herself in to immigration officials the following day. Guajardo failed to tell Jimenez he had in fact lost his case and faced immediate deportation.

"Guys like Guajardo are worse for immigrants than immigration authorities," said Angela Bean, a private immigration attorney who works with some of Guajardo's former clients. "When he couldn't get more blood out of the turnip, he'd let them go."

Mota and her children had trouble paying rent after Jimenez's deportation in December 2008. They were evicted from their home and moved to a shelter for five months. The trauma devastated the couple's oldest daughter, who attempted suicide shortly after her father's sudden deportation.

"That was the worst nightmare my family ever lived," Mota said. "Guajardo knew we had a big family. He gives you a lot of hope, and you believe it because you have six kids. You don't want to be torn apart."

Mota said Guajardo was a powerful presence in court and knew how to work the room, but he was sometimes more humble during private meetings at his office. As a Mexican American and the son of California farm workers, Guajardo appealed to many clients' cultural roots. He often wore traditional guayabera-style shirts and conversed with them in Spanish.

"He had all the opportunity in the world to empathize with clients who had similar backgrounds," immigration attorney Angela Bean said. "He was in a unique position to understand their issues and fears — but instead he exploited those fears for his own economic advantage."

Bean said some of Guajardo's clients mortgaged their homes to pay fees that reached tens of thousands of dollars. One victim was Jagdeep Singh, a convenience store cashier who lived in Contra Costa County with his U.S. citizen wife and children. Guajardo told Singh to stay in the United States and promised he would obtain a green card, according to Singh's declaration for the case.

"Sometimes we waited three to four hours to see him," said Singh. "He didn't seem to know the details of my case very well. He asked me to pay more money every time I came to meet with him."

Singh borrowed from relatives, spent his savings, and contributed large portions of his salary to pay Guajardo $95,000 over the course of three years. He later discovered that the best chance for his case was to voluntarily return to India.

The state bar disciplined Guajardo three times in the 1990s for taking thousands of dollars from clients while neglecting to take action in their cases. Documents filed in the lawsuit claim that he refused to refund fees for work he promised but never performed.

The class action lawsuit also alleges that Guajardo sexually coerced female clients. In the case of one woman whom Bean characterized as a domestic violence victim, he "filed frivolous petitions that had no hope of success and instead 'engaged in a pattern of sexual misconduct with her over the course of nearly six years,' " according to the suit, which quoted from several other lawsuits involving Guajardo.

Finally in 2007, the state bar brought multiple charges against Guajardo "alleging that he continued to charge excessive or unconscionable fees for inadequate representation," according to the city's lawsuit.

With the threat of disbarment looming, Guajardo voluntarily resigned in 2008 — but not before changing his firm's name from "Martin Resendez Guajardo, A Professional Corporation" to "Immigration Practice Group (IPG)" and making Christopher Stender the CEO.

But IPG and Christopher Stender were just fronts for Guajardo, who continued to run the show, the city alleges in court documents.