The Asylum Trap

Unscrupulous attorneys prey on immigrants seeking green cards with an expensive and fruitless legal scheme. Now 29 Mexicans have joined the disbarment case against one such lawyer.

In a California state bar hearing room on Tuesday, the illegal Mexican immigrants rose one by one to tell their tales of deception, in an effort to disbar San Francisco lawyer Walter Pineda. Using an interpreter to translate their Spanish, the attorney's former clients narrated strikingly similar stories: Pineda encouraged them to apply for political asylum when they had almost no chance of receiving it, and promised that he could get them the coveted prize — permanent residency. According to the bar, immigrants who had been living under the radar for years willingly thrust themselves into deportation hearings on Pineda's advice, counting on the lawyer to pull off a last-minute save that would deliver green cards into their grateful hands. The bar has charged Pineda with a "despicable and far-reaching pattern of misconduct."

Those who may have the most right to accuse Pineda won't be on the stand, however, and aren't even named in the state bar complaint. Carlos Ornelas-Cordero, one former client, won't be able to testify because he was deported in January. "When I found out the truth about my case, it was already too late," he says, speaking by phone from a small dusty town near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Ornelas-Cordero says Pineda told him all along that his asylum effort was proceeding as expected and planned. But Ornelas-Cordero paid $12,000 in legal fees, expecting to get permanent residency for himself and his wife; instead he was deported in handcuffs, and his wife "left voluntarily." Their two daughters, who were born in Redwood City and grew up as California girls, are now in Mexico for the first times in their lives, trying to adjust to new schools. Their father says that the girls, who are 9 and 10, aren't delighted by the black widow spiders and scorpions coming out with the hot summer weather, but they're doing their best to adapt. "You close your eyes, you open your eyes — guess what? New life," he says.

Martha Ornelas' son was deported in January.
James Sanders
Martha Ornelas' son was deported in January.
Maria Rosalba Espino is one of Walter Pineda's former clients.
Maria Rosalba Espino is one of Walter Pineda's former clients.

As the debate over illegal immigration continues on city streets, on radio talk shows, and in the halls of Congress, the details of Pineda's practice illustrate one consequence of the nation's current policies. The U.S. government provides few pathways for low-skilled Mexican nationals to become legal residents, creating a vast and vulnerable population that longs for legitimacy. Lawyers like Pineda tap into that longing and find themselves with lucrative practices.

Pineda faces 29 counts of incompetence in representing his clients, plus five counts of moral turpitude. The state bar began its official investigation in 2002 based on a flood of client complaints about Pineda, and eventually settled on 29 cases with which it believes it can prove that Pineda was "recklessly or repeatedly failing to provide competent legal services." Bar lawyers compiled 70 exhibits — comprising more than 18,000 pages of documents — and got 18 of Pineda's former clients to promise to testify at the trial, overcoming the immigrants' natural fear of all forms of legal authority. The evidence will show a clear pattern, state bar documents claim, with Pineda "selling" unsuspecting clients on an ineffective legal approach, "while collecting all the money he could." The bar alleges that it was Pineda's practice to "take client money to file frivolous applications, spend no time actually trying to develop a viable position for the clients to legally stay in the United States, lose the applications for asylum, and take more money to file frivolous appeals." The five counts of moral turpitude are the icing on the cake in the case against Pineda; they include accusations that he "repeatedly and knowingly" lied to clients and took legal actions without their knowledge or consent. A judgment is expected this summer or fall.

Pineda is contesting the disbarment, claiming that his former clients are accusing him of incompetence in order to get their cases reopened, but a clear pattern runs through their allegations. According to the state bar, Pineda consistently encouraged his Mexican clients to apply for political asylum, although they rarely had a legitimate claim: Almost all Mexican immigrants come to the United States for economic reasons, not because of political or religious persecution, as asylum requires. Their chances of success were negligible; from Oct. 1, 2004, to Oct. 1, 2005, only 34 asylum applications were granted to Mexican immigrants nationwide.

But the asylum application was only the beginning of Pineda's legal maneuvering — just the easiest way to get a client into immigration court. Court documents show that once there, Pineda withdrew the application and submitted another, this time for something called "cancellation of removal." Cancellation, Pineda told his clients, was the golden loophole. According to their declarations, he said it was available to immigrants who had been in the country for at least 10 years without arrest, and who had a close relative who was a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. Unfortunately, it wasn't that simple.

Nora Privitera, a lawyer at San Francisco's Immigrant Legal Resource Center, says immigrants have fallen for such tricks for years. "There are many immigration scams, but this asylum scam is one of the most popular," she says. Her group has run educational campaigns to warn immigrants not to trust green card schemes that sound too good to be true. "There are so many people who would not have come to the attention of the immigration authorities if they hadn't filed these applications, people who ended up getting deported," she says. "They would have been much better off living the way they're living. Most of them had been here 10 years or more, and some of them own homes, have established businesses, have children who are U.S. citizens who have grown up here, but off they go."

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