California

State Bar shuts down immigrant law office, says owner posed as lawyer to scam clients

State Bar investigators Monday seized a Southern California woman’s immigrant law practice that they say for years scammed migrants living in the state who believed they were on the road to legal residency.

Samaris Estrada practiced immigration law without a license for decades, State Bar attorneys alleged in court documents, cheating thousands of unwitting clients out of thousands of dollars from the offices of her Immigration Legal Options in Fontana, 50 miles east of Los Angeles.

Estrada “was a longstanding presence in that community,” said Agustin Hernandez, a State Bar of California supervising attorney based in Los Angeles.

That came to an end Monday, State Bar officials said in a news release announcing the seizure, when a San Bernardino Superior Court judge granted investigators’ request for a permanent court order to seize Estrada’s Fontana offices.

Estrada’s website pitch implored potential clients to call and consult with “immigration specialists” and receive “professional guidance” for help with immigration status, residency renewal and assistance to become a U.S. citizen, court documents show.

Immigration consultants can translate state and federal paperwork, pick up supporting documents and refer clients to legal counsel. But they cannot dispense legal advice or represent clients in court.

But Estrada did, State Bar officials said, allegedly engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.

Her alleged scam led to “dire consequences for several of her clients,” State Bar officials said in the release. The extent of the consequences for Estrada’s clients was likely wide ranging, said Teresa Ruano, a State Bar spokeswoman.

One 2018 client was a man whose wife was being held in an Arizona detention facility, an investigator declared in court documents. After phone conversations and face-to-face meetings, Estrada quoted the man $5,000 with a $2,500 deposit and $300 a month payment plan to handle his wife’s immigration matter.

The man hired Estrada and made the down payment, confident that Estrada was an attorney and would represent his wife in court.

After the wife’s release in August 2018, Estrada received the wife’s paperwork and said she could represent the woman in court. But before the hearing, Estrada changed course. She instead charged an additional $7,000 and told the couple that she didn’t make court appearances.

The couple fired Estrada and asked for a refund. The couple never received one and had to pay for a legitimate immigration lawyer, court documents showed.

In statements included in the documents, the clients said they “never would have hired (Estrada)” had they known she wasn’t licensed.

Time, savings, residency status – all were thrown into jeopardy by the bogus business.

“There’s time and money put into these efforts,” Ruano said. “(Clients) had to start over in a state of uncertainty.”

State Bar investigators under a judge’s temporary order earlier this month seized more than 100 boxes of client files including some 80 boxes filled with as many as 3,200 active cases before moving on the operation again this week.

The State Bar can investigate but can’t prosecute misconduct. Investigators will turn the case over to San Bernardino County District Attorney’s prosecutors, Hernandez said.

So many files were in Estrada’s hands that the State Bar has opened a bilingual telephone hotline for clients who want to reclaim their paperwork. Clients can call (213) 765-1673.

“It’s egregious,” Hernandez said Tuesday of Estrada’s case, but it’s far from the only one. Hernandez estimates State Bar investigators are working another 500 open cases across California.

“It’s a prevalent issue. It’s more prevalent given the demographics of the state. We’re seeing an increase in immigrant-related complaints against non-attorneys,” Hernandez said. So much so that the State Bar has established a special unit to combat so-called “nonlawyers.”

“It’s a lot more prevalent than we have the ability to keep up with,” Ruano said Tuesday. “We encourage immigration attorneys and people in the community to file complaints” with the State Bar.

Consumers can also call the State Bar at (800) 843-9053 or search their attorney’s status in California on the State Bar’s website at members.calbar.ca.gov.

Investigators had been onto Estrada for some time. As early as 2013, State Bar investigators served notice to Estrada to stop providing legal services. Estrada received another notice in 2017, officials said, but Estrada continued to offer the services.

Estrada fought the allegations and the permanent court order earlier in October that would take down her shingle, but investigators uncovered what they said was evidence of thousands of dollars in transactions for legal services.

The records were enough for a judge to grant the court order that set the stage for Monday’s seizure.

Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.
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