A Los Angeles con man was convicted of theft Tuesday in a case that authorities say points to the prevalence of fraud in the largely unregulated field of immigration consultants.
Carlos Quintanilla, 40, who operated storefronts dispensing immigration advice in the mid-Wilshire area for at least five years, pleaded no contest to seven felony counts of grand theft. Under a plea arrangement, Quintanilla faces up to a year in County Jail and three years' probation when he is sentenced next month.
Prosecutors say Quintanilla targeted low-income Latinos, often illegal immigrants, who were desperate for guidance and distrustful of the byzantine immigration bureaucracy. An El Salvadoran national, Quintanilla gained the confidence of customers with the assurance that he could win work permits and permanent residence documents (green cards) or could secure visas for long-separated loved ones.
Former customers say Quintanilla misrepresented himself alternately as an attorney and as an official of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"He said he would help me, that I could become legal," said Valente Sabas Luna, among the two dozen former clients who packed the courtroom of Municipal Judge David Horwitz to witness a seemingly shaken Quintanilla being brought to justice in a blue jumpsuit and handcuffs--a stark contrast to the jewel-bedecked, blustery character who once drove fancy cars and boasted of his clout.
Outside the courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, Sabas burnished handwritten receipts showing he had paid $3,950 to the erstwhile consultant, who officials said had no special expertise. In fact, authorities say Quintanilla's actions led to deportation proceedings against Sabas, who must now leave the country by Aug. 13 to avoid being arrested. Quintanilla filed a bogus political asylum application on behalf of Sabas, who acknowledges no legitimate claim of persecution in his native Mexico.
"I'm glad to see justice being done, but I'm living with the consequences of what he did to me," said Sabas, 34, a dry-cleaner worker and father of three.
Prosecutors are seeking to force the immigration consultant to repay $8,000 to the eight victims named in the complaint. However, Quintanilla is said to be in debt and behind on his rent; there is some question as to whether he can come up with the money.
Quintanilla's attorney, Varoujan Nalbandian, insisted that his client had helped many people win green cards, work permits and other benefits. But prosecutors depicted him as a charlatan who sent unwitting immigrants down the plank to deportation.
"He targeted desperate people with wild promises that he couldn't keep and then stole their money," said Kathleen J. Tuttle, a deputy Los Angeles district attorney who prosecuted Quintanilla.
The case is one of about two dozen arising from a task force formed by Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti that includes county, city, state and federal officials. Authorities are seeking to encourage victims, regardless of their immigration status, to come forward and report fraud by consultants and unethical lawyers. (People may call the district attorney's consumer protection division at 213-580-3273.)
Scam artists touting expertise and contacts have long trolled the murky waters of immigration law, typically offering friendly service in the native tongue of their targeted clientele. But experts say the ever-growing complexity of immigration law, combined with the increasing difficulty of obtaining legal status, have fueled a boom for thousands of swindlers operating in a profitable arena sorely lacking regulation.
Immigration consultants in California need no special training to practice their craft; they can set up shop with a general business license. The consultants must post a $25,000 bond with the state and are prohibited from making false promises or giving legal advice. But no government agency regularly monitors their practices.
"Car dealerships are much better regulated than immigration specialists," Garcetti said.
After serving his jail time, Quintanilla, a father of three, will probably face deportation, officials say. Prosecutors are seeking to have him renounce the immigration business.