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!"
A-1 is not the only alleged culprit. Local immigration attorneys can tell dozens of stories of immigrants in metro Denver done wrong by "consultants," "investigators," or "notarios"--people who hang out their shingles and offer help with immigration matters but don't necessarily have training. In some Latin countries, public notaries are also attorneys, and people from those countries often think that is the case in the U.S. as well.
Sometimes the complaints are about out-and-out fraud: performing no work or producing phony documents. But there are also cases in which well-intentioned notarios may put a client in danger by simply misunderstanding the immigration law, which grows more complex all the time. Sometimes they will tell clients that they are eligible to apply for something when in fact they are not, and then go on to file the forms, which, to the immigrants' own detriment, puts them at risk of deportation by making them known to the INS. And because the victims are often in the U.S. illegally, they're reluctant to report what has happened to the authorities.
In 1997, Denver was a boomtown for less-than-scrupulous notarios. The previous year, Congress had passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which toughened sanctions against people who violate immigration laws. Of Colorado's congressional delegation, House members Wayne Allard, Joel Hefley and Scott McInnis, all Republicans, voted for the final version of the new law, while Republican Dan Schaefer and Democrats Patricia Schroeder and David Skaggs voted against it. In the Senate, then-Senator Hank Brown, a Republican, voted against an amendment that would have eased new restrictions on asylum, while Democrat-turned-Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell voted for it. Local attorney Cheryl Martinez-Gloria, who has practiced immigration law for Catholic Charities and Amnesty International for fifteen years, calls the new law the "most unforgiving and cruel legislation" she's ever seen.
A whole new series of deadlines and requirements went into force throughout the year. Starting April 1, 1997, the clock began ticking for illegal immigrants seeking permanent or temporary visas. Before the new law went into effect, it was relatively common for someone with relatives who were citizens or residents to apply for visas while in the country illegally, though they had to pay a penalty to do it. The new law, however, made it clear that applications must be made from outside the country. The question was how this would affect people already in the country illegally with applications pending when the law passed.
According to the new law, people who remained in the country illegally for 180 days, until September 27, 1997, risked a three-year bar on coming back into the U.S. If they remained for a full year, until April 1998, they risked a ten-year bar on their re-entry. In the fall of 1997, Congress amended the law, making it slightly more lenient by allowing anybody who was in the country and had applications filed by January 14, 1998, to avoid the re-entry bars.
This meant that the final months of 1997 were crucial, and immigrants scrambled to file papers before the January deadline.
"They [the notarios] took advantage of the hysteria," says Ted Ramsey of the Justice Information Center, a local nonprofit agency.
One victim of the panic was a 35-year-old immigrant we will call Jose. He lives in a trailer in Boulder with his wife and three children--two girls, ages seven and five, both of whom were born in Mexico, and a son, age three, who was born here. The children run and giggle and chatter in English. Pansies are planted in a neat plot outside the front door, and inside, the trailer is the kind of clean that makes a visitor nervous about tracking in dirt. Photos of the children decorate the walls, along with their artwork. There are child-safety plugs in the electrical sockets. And there are signs of the good life the family has found in America: a microwave, a stereo, a TV.
Jose is a trim, soft-spoken, goateed man in cowboy boots. He has been in the country illegally since the late Eighties, working a series of jobs in landscaping, fast food and construction. His wife works evenings as a janitor. "Even though we don't have anything in the U.S.," says Jose, meaning they are poor, "we eat meat every day."
In late 1997 he decided to seek help to get a work permit. "I've been here a long time and wanted to find a way to be here legally," he says. A friend at his Burger King job told him about a woman named Golda Harvey, who had an office on 88th Avenue and had helped him. Jose went to see her. As he recalls, she appeared very busy and very professional, and she had several assistants working with her. She handed out metallic-gold business cards that proclaimed her a "paralegal/private investigator," with the whorl of a fingerprint on the left side as illustration. According to Jose, she said it would be no problem to get him a work permit; she also said it would cost $4,500, of which she wanted half up front, to take care of the whole family. Jose has receipts for what he paid her to start the work: $1,450 on December 27, 1997, and $800 more on January 3, 1998. He sold his truck to pay for it.
In the final months of 1997, so many other people besides Jose were lining up to see Golda Harvey that it became a disruption for the other businesses on the commercial strip.
"People came here all the time; the parking lot was full," says Richard E. Bass, a chiropractor with offices next door. "She drove the finest car, had the finest clothes."
Around that time, say Harvey's clients, they began to sense trouble. Some say they had problems getting answers about the status of their applications. When they went back to the office, her assistants said there were problems with the landlord. Tim Losier, the landlord, confirms this. "It was supposed to be a private eye and paralegal service," says Losier. "She portrayed a two-customers-at-once max kind of thing." He asked her to leave because of the volume of customers she was getting and complaints from neighboring businesses.
And leave she did--with her clients' money, according to several people. Harvey couldn't be reached for comment for this story. Some of the people disgruntled with her say they can't find her, either. There are rumors that she's in Mexico, that she's in town, out of town, somewhere else in the state. None of the people who say they were wronged by her even know whether there's an investigation of her activities. The INS won't comment.
Recently, about a half dozen of Harvey's former clients gather at the offices of El Comite, a grassroots Latino organization based in Longmont. They crack jokes in the rueful manner of people who feel they have been taken. Most of them have been working in fast food, construction and other low-paying jobs in the U.S. for years--all of them illegally, but many of them paying taxes. As they talk about their dealings with Harvey, some common threads emerge. They were all impressed by Harvey because she seemed very professional; she appeared to be doing a lot of business.
As illegal residents, they have had some Kafka-esque encounters with the federal bureaucracy. One man, wearing a red baseball cap and ripped jeans, jokes that all people care about in the U.S. is paying taxes, so that's what he did, filing a return with a made-up Social Security number. Last year the IRS owed him a refund, and when he didn't get it, he called to complain. He said he probably hadn't gotten it because the Social Security number wasn't valid. IRS workers said, yes, they knew that, and went ahead and sent him the refund anyway.
No refunds seem forthcoming from Harvey, according to the people who have dealt with her. The people at El Comite say they have all coughed up money to her, and many have handwritten receipts with her initials or signature to prove it. The man in the red baseball cap says he paid her $1,000. Another man says he paid her $1,500, and that she said she would help him appeal his case: "No problem, right away!" A young couple with a baby paid $200. Another man paid $3,500. Everyone says they know others who paid Harvey in 1997 or early 1998 and got nothing done or found out that they weren't eligible for what she had said they were. They wryly joke that they are not going to make their final payments to her.
Though many have sought different types of services, they all want to find a way to remain in the U.S. legally. But according to the Justice Information Center's Ted Ramsey and David Senseney, a local immigration attorney who is also at the El Comite meeting, it is doubtful that any of them are eligible for anything at all.
The ripoff of illegal immigrants is hardly limited to Denver; it happens nationwide.
"It happens all the time," says Jeffrey Heller, a law professor who also practices immigration law in the New York City area. Heller recalls one case he had in 1994 in which two Bosnian sisters had sought help from an immigration "counselor" who simply made up a story about their past for their asylum application. According to a newspaper report, the same counselor had been shut down a couple of years earlier by the New York State attorney general, who in the process seized a bank account with a quarter of a million dollars in it.
In 1997, the New Jersey state legislature passed a new law stiffening penalties for unscrupulous immigration consultants. Minnesota also has a law, as does Illinois. In May, the Daley administration in Chicago introduced proposed regulations that would fine people up to $1,500 for falsely claiming they could provide official documents or change someone's immigration status.
U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno has also taken notice of the problem. Earlier this year she told a group of lawyers that "every day, gross numbers of unwary immigrants are defrauded and abused by unethical practitioners whose sole aim is greed and monetary gain. These practitioners literally prey on immigrants, so many of them, especially those who are here unlawfully, are ill-informed about the law and unlikely to complain to the authorities." Reno formed a task force to examine the issue, but its plans to announce pilot programs for enforcement and education in several states have been delayed.
Many people who work with the Latino immigrant community in Denver know there is a problem with notarios. A Colorado congressional aide, who asks to remain anonymous, says the congressional member's office traditionally sends letters of congratulations to new citizens. The INS used to provide the list but stopped doing it. One day a list arrived from a Denver-area notario, and the office sent letters out to the people on it. Phone calls soon started coming in from people saying they hadn't been aware that they'd been made citizens. In fact, they hadn't been. The notario apparently had sent out the list as way to bolster legitimacy.
Colorado lawmakers aren't currently considering any proposals to crack down on immigration consultants, and local enforcers seem to be doing a spotty job of looking out for this type of fraud. "We really don't get involved," says Mike Comfort, acting district director for the INS, when asked about how active the INS is in following up on complaints of abuse. "We turn it over to the Justice Task Force." But the task force, which is based in Washington, D.C., is a policy group, with no role in spurring specific prosecutions. Comfort won't say whether the INS is investigating any local complaints.
"These cases are important because of the helplessness of the victims," says Sandy Romero, a spokeswoman for the Denver DA's office. "We do what we can. The difficulties are the language barrier and the lack of follow-through by the victims. A lot are mobile and don't have a place to pick up the phone. It's hard to talk with them." According to Romero, other than the A-1 Business Services case, the DA's office has not examined a case of this type of immigrant fraud.
Martinez of Reliable Services acknowledges that some people take advantage of immigrants but insists that the problem doesn't stem from the fact that they're not lawyers. He claims that local immigration attorneys are simply upset because they want the business. They want to crack down on non-lawyers because of their own greed, says Martinez.
Local immigration attorneys are sensitive about this point. "We've got a fine line to draw here. People will see us as self-interested," says Donna Lipinski, former president of the Colorado chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "They'll say we're just trying to protect our client base. We don't have a problem with people who truly help filling out forms. But don't make legal assessments."
And however greed may enter into the problem, it can't apply to criticisms coming from organizations such as Catholic Charities, where attorney Cheryl Martinez-Gloria provides cut-rate services for the immigrant community, or to the Justice Information Center, the nonprofit agency where attorney Ted Ramsey does the same. Both Martinez and Ramsey say numerous people have been either robbed or misserved by notarios.
Immigration lawyers also point out that the complex rules of the INS system practically necessitate a lawyer's services, and most illegal immigrants are too poor to hire one. "Some of these things have gotten so complicated or so bogged down that some kind of process that should be easy is complicated," says Gail Nathanson, advocacy associate for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "The system is like many other systems. If you have some money and can afford an attorney, it will be less painful."
Lawyers are sometimes held accountable, simply by their profession's licensing and educational standards. Notarios aren't, and some of Denver's illegal immigrants now know that all too well.
According to Ted Ramsey, a number of Colorado immigrants are upset at a woman named Dilcia Romero, who runs a business called Centro de Inmigracion Hispano in the Los Angeles area. Romero sometimes travels to Colorado to drum up business, according to the stories Ramsey has heard, holding group meetings at someone's house or other locations.
"Whatever the person's story, she'll say, 'I'll get you a permit or a green card.' Other people have turned them down," says Ramsey. "They'll say, 'I trusted her because she was so professional.'" Typically, says Ramsey, she has asked for money, had people sign papers, taken their fingerprints and also has photographed them at the meetings.
Ramsey says he has uncovered evidence from his clients' INS files that Romero had, in fact, applied for asylum for a client without the client's knowledge. Asylum is very difficult to obtain and, according to Ramsey, "none of these people have the remotest claim for it." Applications for asylum also bring illegal immigrants to the attention of the INS.
In one set of applications obtained by Ramsey, forms with Romero's office address listed as a return address include a story of why a client is seeking asylum: "In Mexico I was being persecuted by members of the judicial police who also tortured, mistreated, attacked me and would not stop persecuting me." Ramsey says the client, whom he now represents, claims no knowledge of such a story.
Local immigration attorneys have warned the INS about the situation. Donna Lipinski circulated a memo to the INS and other immigration attorneys in April that claimed Romero "prepares bogus applications of asylum for people from Mexico, shows them where to sign, and uses her own address as the mailing address. When the INS sends notices for the interview, they never get the notices, because they do not live at her office address."
Unlike A-1 or Golda Harvey, Romero is still operating and apparently willing to help immigrants in Colorado. She did not return calls for this story. But when a Spanish-speaking caller asked in early June if Romero could help a friend in Colorado with an immigration matter, an office assistant said that she could. However, a check this week revealed that her number is disconnected.
The immigrants themselves know they're unlikely to recover their losses.
"I think we all know we're not going to get our money back," says the young mother attending the meeting at El Comite. "We're here so this won't happen again." Her husband adds, "We know things are getting harder and harder. People take advantage of us."
The money is gone, but if immigrants seek help from immigration attorneys, sometimes they can turn their cases around. Martinez-Gloria of Catholic Charities has been able to help some of the former clients of A-1 Business Services.
But many of them are simply told that they have no recourse under the law and that they are not eligible to become legal residents. Because of stiffened requirements, many illegal immigrants have only a few choices, which include winning asylum, gaining entry through a "diversity" lottery (which doesn't apply to certain countries, including Mexico), being sponsored by a prospective employer or having close relatives here.
Jose says that doesn't mean that he will leave the U.S. Life is still better here than in Mexico, legal or not, he says--even if his mother back in Mexico has met her grandchildren "only in pictures." Asked what he will do about his status, Jose has a simple answer: "I'll wait to see if the laws change.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.