The Underclass

Colorado's illegal immigrants find trouble even when they try to do things legally.

A lot of things decorate the walls at Reliable Enterprises on West 38th Avenue. There are signs advertising that the business will, for a fee, provide translations from Spanish to English, notarize documents, Xerox them, fax them, prepare tax returns and handle immigration applications. There are two Broncos pennants, several full-page newspaper shots of Broncos team members and an orange flier showing the cartoon character Calvin peeing. There are portraits of Jesus and a sign saying, "The agency no longer accepts checks." Behind the desk where Sam Martinez, the office manager, meets with clients, two pairs of boxing gloves adorn the wall.

There's something you won't see on the wall, though: a law diploma. Martinez, who possesses movie-star good looks and a steady gaze, says that he has a college degree but that he doesn't need even that to do immigration work for people who come to see him.

And there's plenty of work. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that about 45,000 illegal immigrants live in Colorado, ranking the state eleventh in the country. They do some of the most menial jobs--maintenance, lawnmowing, grunt work at fancy resorts--and according to those who work with them, they can be used and abused because of their ignorance of English, the labyrinthine legal system and their own illegal status. Why risk deportation by complaining to the authorities?

Because of their low incomes, illegal immigrants often can't afford to hire lawyers to help them attempt to become legal residents or even citizens. As a result, many of them, especially those from Mexico and Central America, fall prey to hucksters.

Martinez insists he's no huckster.
"If you needed to be a lawyer, why would Immigration put out all the paperwork on the counter?" he asks. "High school would have been enough. If you can read or write, that's enough. All you need to do is biographic work. Ask for birthdates. You don't need to be a lawyer for that."

Before Martinez took up this line of work, he says, he managed convenience stores. Just that morning, he says, he was at the Denver office of the INS getting papers on new rules for Central American immigrants. He knows several people at the office, he says, who help get things done. "You don't have to be an Einstein," he says, "to know what's going on."

But Martinez does have to watch what he says and does on behalf of his clients. In May 1997, the Denver Small Claims Court ordered him "not to do anything that would constitute the practice of law." A man named Robert A. Halter had filed a lawsuit against A-1 Business Services, Martinez's previous employer, claiming that he had paid $500 to the company to file divorce papers but that services had never been provided. The court found in Halter's favor.

Martinez says that ruling was unfair: He'd simply been the office manager and had only worked at A-1 Business Services for a few months. It was Jose Anthony "Tony" Rosado, his childhood friend, who had signed the receipt provided as evidence by Halter. Tony is the drug-abusing son of Rita Ramirez, who ran the business. A lot of "bad stuff" happened at A-1 Business Services, says Martinez. There were so many people who came in, and they all turned over money; Martinez smacks his arm to show where Tony put it. Martinez says he wasn't aware that there were such problems until people started streaming in, angry, asking where their money was. About a year ago, A-1 Business Services closed down. Reliable Enterprises took the same phone number and the location on West 38th Avenue.

That building and its phone number have a long, sorry history. Court papers filed in Denver show that in May 1997 Tony Rosado agreed to repay a woman $1,755 after she complained that he had failed to do promised immigration paperwork. Earlier this year, Rosado, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was sentenced to 36 years in the state penitentiary for possession of heroin and for being a "habitual criminal"; his five previous felonies, for offenses ranging from drug possession to attempted escape to passing bad checks, date back to 1990. The Denver District Attorney's Office dropped four other counts that included alleged cocaine dealing, robbery and trafficking in food stamps. (Rosado's case is now on appeal. Neither he nor his attorney will comment on it.)

Rosado's mother and another woman, both of whom also worked in the office, were well aware of his drug problem. In 1990 they both wrote letters to the district court pleading leniency after Tony had been caught cashing bad checks at a liquor store. "My son, like many others, has fallen into the terrible illness of drugs," wrote Rita Ramirez. Nevertheless, Rosado's family wanted him to keep serving customers on sensitive matters. "Tony is one of two employees that represent clients before the IRS in tax audits...Tony is one of two who do the long form...I am asking for a deferment of his sentence at least until the end of the tax season," wrote the other employee, Betsy Lobo-Lucio.

With Rosado in jail, the DA's economic-crimes division, which had been conducting an investigation into A-1 Business Services, has closed its file. The complaints continue, however. Immigration lawyers around town are familiar with the company; people came to them in desperation after paying A-1 hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars for work permits, residence applications or other immigration matters and getting nothing in return. One woman wrote in a formal complaint to the DA's office: "I had a trace run on my money orders to the INS and found that A-1 wrote their name above INS's and deposited the money in their bank account!"

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