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Fraud Case Hits Immigrants Hard

Hundreds Seeking Legal Status Through O.C. Service Lose Their Cash, Hopes

June 05, 2003|Jennifer Mena and Zeke Minaya | Times Staff Writers

A fraud case that affected hundreds of undocumented immigrants who believed promises of easy green cards continues to reverberate through Southern California -- in places like Serafina Bea's one-bedroom apartment.

In her crowded Anaheim home, her husband is yelling, her son complains of unusual back pains, and she's lost 20 pounds. The stress, Bea says, is from the realization that she was fooled by an increasingly common immigration fraud scheme and probably will be sent back to Mexico after living in the U.S. for 17 years.

"My whole life has been turned upside down, and all because I wanted a chance to work legally in this country. I trusted the wrong people to help me," Bea said.

The 35-year-old mother of two U.S.-born children thought she paid La Guadalupana Immigration Services $1,500 to get her a work permit, then a green card giving her legal residency. Instead, she says, the counseling center duped her into filing for political asylum without understanding what it is or having any evidence to support her claim.

On Wednesday, the Orange County district attorney's office, the county Human Relations Commission and other local agencies urged immigrants like Bea who may have been defrauded by the Santa Ana operation to come forward. They assured undocumented immigrants that they would not be reported to immigration authorities.

"We do not represent the INS," Deputy Dist. Atty. Byron Nelson said. "They don't ask, and we don't tell."

Overwhelmed by the growing workload on the case, the district attorney's office asked nonprofit agencies to help it sort through hundreds of boxes of documents discovered by investigators in a secret back room, sealed behind drywall.

Victims can recover personal documents -- such as birth certificates, tax returns and other papers -- by calling a hotline, (714) 567-7415, that provides instructions in Spanish. Those who want to testify can call the district attorney at (714) 347-8874.

La Guadalupana owner Roberto Fernandez and five employees were charged in March with felony grand theft and conspiracy in 200 client cases, although there could be many more, according to the district attorney's office.

The district attorney's office began investigating La Guadalupana after the Mexican consulate alerted it to people who believed they had been defrauded, said Jess Araujo, an attorney who works with the consulate and sits on the district attorney's Hispanic Advisory Commission.

Nelson said four of the suspects, including Fernandez, defaulted on bail and fled the country about two months ago. Two other suspects have never been taken into custody.

Gone with Fernandez, who Nelson said typically charged a client $4,000 to $8,000, may be millions of dollars taken from people like Romana Brito of Santa Ana.

The 33-year-old pregnant mother of three said she paid $5,000 to Fernandez to help her get papers to legalize her status. She attended the news conference Wednesday to get back the documents she gave the counseling center.

"I feel very bad because we would not have been in these awful troubles if it wasn't for him," a tearful Brito said of Fernandez. "He made so many pretty promises."

Nelson said they have frozen Fernandez's U.S. assets and are asking the Mexican government to help recoup some of the lost money.

The Mexican American Bar Assn. has offered to represent some of the victims whose cases remain in the courts, even though most have little evidence to back their requests for political asylum.

Bar association members will work free of charge because La Guadalupana "destroyed the dreams of people who will now be forced to live in poverty in Mexico, a country that their children do not know," said attorney Alan Diamante, chairman of the association's Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee. "A lot of them did not have viable cases, and the Guadalupana charged them exorbitant fees."

Once asylum applications are filed, the immigrants cannot simply withdraw themselves from the court process. In the end, most will probably be ordered to leave the United States under court order.

Bea said she heard about La Guadalupana from a friend, who told her she could have a work permit in months. Bea gave the agency $1,500, money she'd earned watching four neighborhood children.

"I was so happy because all these years, my husband has not wanted me to work and I have only been able to work a few odd jobs. I wanted a real job and money of my own," said Bea, who attended school in the Mexican state of Jalisco until third grade, when she began working in agricultural fields with her family.

Her common-law husband, who later learned she had sought a green card, told her of news reports about La Guadalupana in March. He was upset that she had applied, saying she didn't need to work.

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