Paulo Chavez Mendez paid more than $1,000 to a Lakewood company for help with his immigration case but saw his fight to stay in the United States go from complicated to potentially catastrophic.
“I think that, but for our intervention and the cooperation of (the federal Department of Homeland Security) to help these people who were victimized, that yes, he would have faced definite deportation,” said Chavez’s attorney, Manuel Rios.
Chavez’s wife and three minor children have legal permanent residency in the United States, and the 41-year-old Midland man hoped several years ago that the Lakewood company, E.C. New Horizons, could help him get the same.
“He’s just a guy that’s trying to be with his family,” Rios said.
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Now Chavez is trying to avoid deportation to Mexico, and recently settled a lawsuit against New Horizons, which allegedly prepared his paperwork and gave him unauthorized legal advice.
Chavez’s case for legal permanent residency was complicated to begin with because of two prior deportations, and the actions of New Horizons had him dangerously close to being sent back to Mexico, Rios said.
No one answered the phone when The News Tribune called the company several times last week, and no one answered the door when a reporter stopped by Thursday.
According to Chavez’s lawsuit:
The business is registered with the state Department of Revenue under the name of Edwin Cruz as a portrait photography studio and under the name Mauricio Terry as an administrative management consulting service.
A Better Business Bureau accreditation sign was in the window of the office at one point, though E.C. New Horizons is not accredited by the BBB.
An online ad on the Lakewood-JBLM Patch website used a statement from Terry, saying the business provides “consultation services for immigrants who are looking to start the process of gaining permanent residency, citizenship or a Work Authorization Document.”
The ad also said: “Rather than attorney fees, we provide the extra service.”
In 2011, Cruz and Terry were accused of misleading advertising and agreeing to give legal advice and prepare immigration-related documents for customers. They settled with the state Attorney General’s Office for $2,000 in civil penalties and $6,000 in attorney fees and legal costs.
NOTARIOS INSTEAD OF ATTORNEYS
Businesses that provide immigration consultation without adequate legal training are called “notarios,” in Spanish.
In Latin America, the title reflects someone who is a licensed attorney, and in some places indicates the person is even more credentialed, said Matt Adams of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
In the United States, it translates to notary, someone qualified to oversee the signing of documents.
It’s hard to say how many operate in Washington, but Adams estimates his office each year sees a couple hundred people who seek his office’s help after notarios first tried to handle their cases.
Part of the issue, he said, is that the need for immigration legal services is greater than his nonprofit and others can fill. If someone can’t find help they can afford, a notario might be cheaper.
“There are people out there who are trying to just help people who can’t afford attorneys,” Adams said. “There’s not necessarily an intent to deceive on the part of some.”
The price range for notarios varies, and some charge about as much as a qualified attorney would, Adams said. But in general, a notario costs roughly a third or less of what an attorney would charge, he estimated.
“What ends up happening is that while some people might go through without any problem, many people end up submitting applications for which they don’t qualify,” he said.
$1,300 BILL BUT NO HELP
That’s what Chavez said happened to him. The complaint filed in Pierce County Superior Court gives this account:
In 2011, Chavez and his wife, Esmeralda Ruesgo Loera, turned to E.C. New Horizons after being referred there by Chavez’s brother.
The office at 4102 110th St. SW then had signs that stated: “Nuevos Horizontes” and “Notario Publico.”
Cruz, who was named in Chavez’s lawsuit, told the couple Chavez was eligible for legal status, and had the right to apply for it. Chavez’s two prior deportations wouldn’t be an issue, Cruz said.
The charge for Cruz to prepare the application for permanent residency for Chavez was $1,300. He asked the couple to come back with documents and the payment and filing fees.
When they returned, Cruz spent two hours with them, filling out a form for Ruesga to file on her husband’s behalf. The couple gave Cruz $300 and signed the paperwork, though Cruz did not put his signature on the documents as the preparer.
Cruz said he had worked in the “office of immigration,” and made the couple think he had inside knowledge about immigration matters. Diplomas and certificates on the walls also gave the couple confidence in Cruz, who told them to have faith.
About eight months later, the couple got word that the application had been approved. The next month, they gave Cruz another $300 to put together a naturalization application for Ruesga.
In November 2012, Cruz filled out more paperwork for Chavez’s bid for permanent residency, and the couple paid him another $500 toward the $1,300 tab.
Two months later they learned they would be interviewed by the government about his application, and Cruz told them how to prepare.
When the couple went to the interview on Feb. 21, 2013, the interviewer said the application was being denied because of Chavez’s prior deportations, and that the family should get an attorney.
They went back to Cruz, who told them he didn’t think an attorney was necessary, and appealed the decision for them for $585, which he said he would charge them later.
The appeal later was denied because it was filed with the wrong division of Homeland Security.
In February 2014, Chavez told Cruz he was considering getting a lawyer. Cruz said he shouldn’t do that, and that “only the easy part was left.”
The next month the couple got a notice for Chavez to meet with a deportation officer.
They took the notice to New Horizons, where Terry, also named in the lawsuit, reviewed it. Ruesga asked whether they should get an attorney.
Terry said yes.
90 DAYS AND COUNTING
That’s what they did, eventually working with Rios, who helped them win the settlement in their lawsuit against New Horizons. Rios said his client’s part of the settlement is about $25,000.
The lawsuit was the first time, Rios thinks, that a plaintiff has used the state's Immigration Services Fraud Prevention Act, designed to help target notarios posing as attorneys.
Chavez now has an order that gives him 90 days to get ready to leave the country. His attorney, Rios, said the hope is that Chavez will be able to stay in the United States without fear of deportation when President Obama’s executive action takes effect.
“My feeling is that at least he has a temporary reprieve,” Rios said. “We’re ready to go. As soon as that comes out, he’s ready to file.”