It’s been said that America is a cultural melting pot, one steeped in the deep-rooted belief that anyone willing to work hard will be granted a seat at the table of prosperity. That is, after all, the American Dream.
At home in Alabama, the melting pot seemingly boiled over in the 1960s amid the height of the Civil Rights Movement, when the world bore witness to the racism and bigotry that had defined the South for generations. Due to the Movement, segregation was abolished and racial equality by law was introduced to the Deep South.
That was not the end of discrimination, however.
Flash forward to 2011. The Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, more commonly known as HB 56, was signed into law on June 9, 2011 by Governor Robert Bentley amid widespread support from the Alabama House of Representatives and the Alabama State Senate, and widespread scorn many other places in the country.
The law was widely touted as the toughest anti-illegal immigration law in the country. According to experts, this allowed for a new kind of discrimination to emerge among the immigrant workforce.
Jessica Vosburgh, an attorney for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, believes that in Alabama the problem that stems from HB 56 is the lack of legal protection against wage theft – that is, an employer soliciting work from day laborers only to underpay them or not pay them at all for services rendered.
“The big issue in Alabama is that there is zero infrastructure on the state level to protect workers, especially low wage workers,” Vosburgh explained.
“Alabama is one of only five states without a minimum wage. So the federal minimum wage, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, provides the floor, and the only means of protection. A lot of states have their own state level set of laws that protects workers, and Alabama doesn’t have any of that,” Vosburgh said.
According to a 2008 study conducted by the National Employment Law Project, 64 percent of low wage workers experience wage theft each week. Aside from that, 26 percent of those workers are paid less than minimum wage, and 76 percent of day laborers who are owed overtime go unpaid or underpaid.
Vosburgh said that the numbers in Alabama are likely higher due to the lack of legal recourse that immigrants have when dealing with unscrupulous employers.
“I’m sure wage theft takes on its own particular form here too,” Vosburgh said. “It’s different in each place, and a lot depends on the nature of the workforce. I would think there would be a lot more instances of wage theft here because the level of protection that workers have is so low, employers are well aware of the fact that they can get away with things that they couldn’t elsewhere,” Vosburgh said.
Apart from being victims of wage theft, immigrants in Alabama are experiencing a new kind of discrimination, one with much higher stakes than being shorted on a week’s worth of pay.
Immigrants looking to regularize their immigration status will approach lawyers and even notaries about filing for residency or cancellation of removal – that is, canceling their deportation. After paying their legal fees and signing what they believed to be the proper documentation, they sometimes find themselves either up for removal hearings, or no closer to being granted residency papers than when they approached the lawyer in the first place.
Danny Upton, a local attorney who works exclusively on immigration cases, believes this problem is more widespread than most people are aware of.
“It happens a lot,” Upton said when asked how frequently he is approached by people claiming to be victims of immigration fraud. “People have powerful incentives to lie when dealing with immigration. It’s a systemic problem. In Alabama we allow non-attorneys, such as notaries, to do legal work with immigrants,” he said.
Upton says that the problem is not only with questionable practices from lawyers, but also with notaries who claim, in some cases, to be able to acquire the documents necessary to apply for residency or citizenship.
A lot of people fall victim to fraud from notaries presenting themselves as immigration specialists, or even coming right out and claiming to be immigration attorneys, Upton said.
“They take advantage of a lot of people, to the tune of thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars, applying for benefits that they will never receive,” Upton went on to say.
The problem with immigration fraud cases like these relates to residency or citizenship being a civil law issue. Unlike criminal proceedings – where, when you are accused of a crime but are unable to pay an attorney, one will be provided for you at no expense – in the immigration context, which is entirely a matter of civil law, you only have a constitutional right to an attorney at your own expense, Upton explained.
If you can’t afford one, an attorney will not be provided for you. This is true for children who are in immigration proceedings and it’s true for mentally incapacitated people who are in proceedings. And so that is a systemic problem in itself, Upton said.
A closer look
There is a large black duffel bag in Leslie Gonzalez’s office. She is a BIA (Board of Immigration Appeals) accredited representative with the Department of Homeland Security. Her desk is neatly lined with papers and case files from various people claiming to be victims of immigration fraud.
Gonzalez is not a lawyer, but rather a representative with the Department of Homeland Security who assists immigrants in petitioning to regularize their immigration status. Oftentimes the people who come to her for help have already become victims of fraud. The files she keeps are a combination of documents from her office’s intake paperwork to letters and forms from attorneys whom the immigrants are accusing of fraudulent law practices. Gonzalez is nothing if not thorough.
“These are all case files from one man,” Gonzalez explained, lifting up the large black bag. “He was an attorney that was licensed in the state of Alabama and he was originally disbarred in 2010; he appealed and won the decision and got reinstated. Then he was disbarred again on September 10, 2013,” Gonzalez explained.
Douglas Cooner is the attorney who was disbarred last year. He could not be reached for comment after numerous attempts, and while he is in the process of appealing his disbarment in Alabama, he is a member of bar associations in Minnesota and Puerto Rico.
According to Gonzalez, immigrants claim that Cooner would not attend court hearings, and in some cases never provided copies of the applications for cancellation of removal that he claimed had been submitted.
According to a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice dated March 12, 2014 and given to Weld by Gonzalez, Cooner had been ordered to suspend practice of law in Alabama, and was subsequently suspended from practicing before the Department of Homeland Security.
The letter reads, “On June 20, 2013, the Disciplinary Board of the Alabama State Bar issued a report and order disbarring the respondent from practice of law in Alabama. On September 10, 2013, the Supreme Court of Alabama affirmed the report and order.”
It goes on to say, “Consequently, on January 15, 2014, the Department of Homeland Security initiated disciplinary proceedings against the respondent and petitioned for the respondent’s immediate suspension from practice before the DHS.”
Nevertheless, Cooner wrote a letter dated Feb. 21, 2014 to several of his clients asserting his legal right to practice law in Alabama. The letter was given to Gonzalez by one of the attorney’s clients.
The letter begins on a rather ironic note, given the accusations against Cooner. “The alien living amongst you must be treated as your native born. Love them as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt,” it says, quoting from Leviticus 19:33-34.
The letter reads, “It has come to my attention that some persons are passing out documentation or brochures that I am not an attorney or eligible to practice federal immigration law which is the only law that I have practiced for 23 years.
“These individuals are guessing and basing their claims on the question whether I am a member of the Alabama Bar Association. Although my name is not on the Alabama Bar website, a legal action is filed against the Alabama Bar Association that is on appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court.”
The allegations involving Cooner are not isolated incidents, Gonzalez explained. Allegations pop up with regularity every time immigration becomes a hot topic in the media, and lawyers looking to make easy money will take advantage of the frenzied threat of deportation, she said. The passage of HB 56 is a prime instigator of such a frenzy in Alabama.
Since the passage of the bill in 2011, it comes as no surprise that there has been a definitive spike in immigration fraud cases in Alabama. “There was a big increase in victims. We’re starting to see now, even more people that had started their [fraudulent] legal processes right around the time HB 56 was passed,” Gonzalez said.
As for the case files that line her desk, Gonzalez says that not all of them are the result of unethical law practices. Sometimes it’s good lawyers making honest mistakes with their paperwork. However, the number of blatantly fraudulent law practices has steadily been on the rise in recent years.
“Not all the cases are bad cases. There are some legitimate things that have been filed for. The majority of people that are coming forward now, hired a lawyer to petition for a law that doesn’t exist. It’s a misconception known as the ‘10-year law,’” Gonzalez said.
Jeremy Love, a local immigration attorney, recently wrote an article entitled “The fallacy of the 10-year Visa and the truth behind Cancellation of Removal.” The article, which can be found on the Love Law Firm website, outlines the myth that has been the root cause for many of the immigration fraud cases in the last several years.
Immigrants who contend that they have become victims of fraudulent law practices claim that they unknowingly filed for residency under false legal pretexts. In most cases the immigrant will seek out a lawyer or notary to file an application for cancellation of removal under the “10-year law.” But contrary to this belief, simply being in the United States for 10 years does not give a person immunity from deportation; it is only one of many requirements that must be met. Oftentimes an unscrupulous lawyer will collect a fee for submitting the application that is, in essence, make-believe. The immigrant will then find his or herself up for removal proceedings without any legal recourse.
“So, what is the 10-Year Visa? It doesn’t exist. It is a myth. Cancellation of Removal includes a 10-year requirement, but there are many more requirements and it is not a visa but a defense to deportation,” Love writes. “Cancellation of Removal is only available for someone who has been in the US for at least 10 years prior to a removal action being filed with the Immigration Court. Also, the respondent must show that he/she is a person of good moral character without a serious criminal or immigration history,” Love wrote.
Gonzalez agrees with Love’s notion about the widespread myth. The towering case files in her office are a monument to people seeking salvation in a law that essentially does not exist.
However, she said that the 10-year law is more of a misconception as opposed to complete myth. “It’s not 100 percent false, but it’s based loosely on reality. You need to meet several qualifying factors, one of which is that you have maintained residency in the United States for at least 10 years. But that’s just one of many things you have to qualify for,” Gonzalez explained, flipping through the files she has from people who have been duped by lawyers trying to cash in on this misconception.
According to the official Application for Cancellation of Removal and Adjustment of Status for Certain Nonpermanent Residents from the U.S. Department of Justice, the 10-year law is only one of many stipulations.
The application reads, “Prior to the service of the Notice to Appear, you have maintained continuous physical presence in the United States for ten (10) years or more, and you have been a person of good moral character.” But this is only one of eight requirements that one must meet before being able to apply for cancellation of removal.
Gonzalez says that people will come into her office and say that the lawyer they hired submitted a petition for the 10-year law. This is where the fallacy lies; a 10-year law form doesn’t exist, she said. These people often don’t have copies of the documents and petitions that their lawyers claim were submitted. “If you don’t get a copy, that is a problem,” Gonzalez explained.
“I’ve heard of other attorneys who were turning clients into removal proceedings a different way. It was the same concept, just with more money involved,” Gonzalez said. “The client would sign a bunch of documents in English, and they weren’t exactly sure what they were signing. So there really wasn’t that fraudulent step of petitioning for a nonexistent benefit. Next thing the client knows, they’re up for removal proceedings,” Gonzalez said.
Since being accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals in 2012, Gonzalez estimates that she has had nearly 400 immigration fraud cases.
April 5 marked two million deportations since President Obama was elected in 2009. With more than 1,000 people being deported each day, this number alone leaves the door open for people offering fraudulent immigration services to those fearing deportation, Upton explained.
“The need for services is so great, and even though it’s a civil matter, the consequences of these proceedings are very serious. It can get you taken away from your children and sent back to a country where maybe you haven’t lived for decades. That is as severe a penalty as a criminal case,” Upton said.
According to Gonzalez, the reality is that wherever there is someone seeking immigration assistance – especially here at home in Alabama, which still boasts some of the most stringent immigration laws in the United States – there will be unprincipled lawyers and others looking to cash in on the fear of deportation.
Visibly frustrated by these cases and what she sees as blatant disregard of the law, Gonzalez just hopes she can make a difference by bringing those responsible for immigration fraud to justice.
“What’s the point in the law then?” she asked. “The Department of Justice is saying, ‘We took your license away.’ And people are out there saying ‘I don’t care,’” Gonzalez said as she sat behind her desk, buried behind the neatly stacked wall of case files she has from people claiming to be victims of fraud. “One of these days I just hope it all pays off and that justice is served.”