HOUSTON — Soon after he opened his office serving immigrants fighting to stay in the United States, Raed Gonzalez became a lawyer who goes after other lawyers.
A person with a winnable case can be thrown into deportation by a missed deadline or a botched court filing, and attorneys quietly known by others to do bad legal work can practice for years without being stopped. So Gonzalez began helping immigrants file complaints against lawyers with their state licensing organizations. By his count, his firm has filed 90 complaints against lawyers in the last five years.
With a rapid succession of policy changes and a sharp rise in arrests, the Trump administration has created a surge of demand among immigrants in need of legal help, and hundreds of lawyers have started taking on immigration cases. But the systems for finding and reporting fraud and misconduct remain byzantine and allow bad lawyers to sometimes rack up dozens of complaints before they are stopped.
Legal groups have long raised the alarm about "notarios" — people who play on the Spanish word for notary public to present themselves as official advocates, as "notarios" are in many parts of Latin America. A study by the American Immigration Council published last year found that people who obtain lawyers to represent them in immigration courts — which, unlike criminal courts, don't guarantee access to an attorney — generally fare far better in asylum hearings and other cases than those who don't.
But bad lawyers are hard to find and weed out.
Many immigrants are fearful of and unfamiliar with American courts, making them a mark for fraud, said Gonzalez, a native of Puerto Rico who moved to Houston two decades ago. His office, next to one of Houston's major highways west of downtown, is filled every day with Spanish-speaking families seeking advice on how to get their papers or stave off deportation.
"In immigration, it is so easy because it is a population that is afraid," he said. "They don't know their rights."
With the help of Leslie Giron Kirby, a Houston immigration lawyer, Yolanda Delgado filed a grievance with the Texas state bar against her previous lawyer after he allegedly took three years — and $7,000 of her earnings as a housekeeper — without filing her paperwork for permanent residency.
A native of the Philippines, Delgado moved to the United States in 1999 and has three children. She wanted to get a green card so she could return to visit her family and hired the lawyer, Ivan Lopez de Victoria, on the recommendation of her boss.
After years of promises, she decided to find another lawyer. Kirby eventually helped her get her green card in October 2014, after about six months.
The State Bar investigated Lopez de Victoria, but did not take action against him. Lopez de Victoria gave Delgado a $3,000 refund.
"He delayed my papers and he did nothing about it," Delgado said.
Lopez de Victoria denied any wrongdoing and said Delgado's case took a long time because he had to begin the case "from scratch."
The primary way lawyers are disciplined is through the state bar association that licensed them to practice law. The Executive Office of Immigration Review, the Justice Department agency overseeing immigration courts, publishes an online list of lawyers who have been banned from taking immigration cases, primarily relying on state bar groups.
But state bar groups aren't government organizations and typically conduct their investigations in private, without reporting allegations they've received until they punish the lawyer.
In Texas, filing a complaint with the state bar requires the victim to fill out a form and explain in writing how their attorneys committed wrongdoing. People already defrauded by one lawyer often end up more fearful of the legal system and lawyers. And investigations can take years and don't always end with a lawyer being punished.
"There are definitely names that keep coming up of people that have been hurt by other lawyers," said Kirby. "It's almost like everybody knows it exists, but we don't really talk about it."
In Texas, which has an estimated 1.5 million immigrants in the United States illegally and some of the nation's busiest immigration courts, the state bar has disbarred or sanctioned more than 30 lawyers for misconduct in immigration cases in the last three years, and paid out more than $240,000 to victims of immigration-related misconduct since June 2016. The charges against those lawyers ranged from overcharging to neglecting deadlines on cases.
In a rare step, the Harris County attorney's office filed a civil complaint against one lawyer, Uchechi "Prince" Nwakanma, after dozens of complaints were lodged against him.
According to Harris County's complaint, Nwakanma purchased half-hour infomercials on Spanish-language radio and promised outcomes that were "wholly unrealistic or even legally unattainable." He was disbarred after being the subject of more than 50 complaints from clients who lost their payments or had their cases endangered. In several cases, his clients alleged that he took payments of $3,500 or more and did nothing.
Nwakanma's attorney, Troy Wilson, said that "we vehemently disagree" with allegations that Nwakanma defrauded clients.
Gonzalez's office helped several people file complaints against Nwakanma. Another lawyer he targeted, Jose Vega, racked up 38 complaints filed with the Texas state bar before he surrendered his license.
An attorney and a paralegal in Gonzalez's office assist immigrants in filling out the necessary paperwork and translating their stories from Spanish. He said his office doesn't make any money from the grievances, and filing them often makes him unpopular among his peers.
"I think it's our duty as attorneys to be able to help people to do this," he said. "We need to stop them, and we need to do something about it."
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Nomaan Merchant, The Associated Press