Trials and Immigrations

Rafael Maldonado came to the United States from Mexico to attend high school in Oxnard, California, in 1985. He received a temporary green card in 1990 when he married an American woman, but his card expired in 1992, and he divorced a year later. Maldonado was afraid that he might be deportable, but he didn't have money for a lawyer. Finally, in 1997, on the advice of a friend, Maldonado went to see a popular immigration attorney, Dan Boyle -- but it turned out that Boyle was on the verge of being suspended from the bar because he had misrepresented several clients. His practice had recently been purchased by Brandon Marinoff, and Marinoff assured Maldonado that he was the best litigator the state of Colorado had ever seen. Maldonado hadn't been that impressed with Dan Boyle, anyway -- he thought Boyle was a money man, but Marinoff seemed "hungry for success" and would fight hard for him.

Marinoff charged him a straight fee of $2,100 to handle the matter. It seemed like a lot of money to Maldonado, but he figured it was better to pay up than to spend the rest of his life in Mexico.

He paid Marinoff's office an initial $1,000, and Marinoff told him not to worry. A year went by, and Maldonado says Marinoff never asked him to produce any paperwork explaining his situation. Other than calls from Marinoff's office asking for the rest of the money, Maldonado says he had little contact with his attorney. Though Marinoff dealt with a largely Spanish-speaking clientele, the lawyer didn't speak Spanish and instead relied on clerks and secretaries to translate, Maldonado says. By September 1998, he'd had enough. He went to Marinoff's office and asked him, "What am I paying you for if I don't see any evidence you're trying?"

By the second week of September, Maldonado was finally able to meet with an Immigration and Naturalization Service attorney -- but he says Marinoff had prepared him only a few days beforehand and then showed up late to the meeting. The INS erroneously believed that Maldonado had previously been deported, he says, and Marinoff didn't try to correct the error. "He had no clue what the INS thought of me," Maldonado says. "He never bothered himself to look up my file."

Maldonado remembers that the INS attorney looked at his file quickly, then closed it and said she wasn't going to deal with the matter that day because Marinoff wasn't prepared.

Maldonado had three months to get his paperwork in order; he left Marinoff and found another attorney who was able to resolve his problems. Maldonado is now a lawful permanent resident, working as a supervisor at EchoStar satellite company, but he believes he was close to being deported, and he describes himself as "embarrassed" by Marinoff's representation. "Marinoff's shortcomings put my freedom in jeopardy."

Marinoff refuses to speak about representing Maldonado. Beyond that, he says, "my response is, I don't want to talk about clients or former clients." Attorney-client privilege does, in fact, inhibit a lawyer's ability to freely discuss the specifics of his representation of a client. Besides, Marinoff points out, every attorney has a few disgruntled clients.

And it's easy for illegal immigrants to turn into disgruntled clients when they're fighting deportation. Until 1996, most immigrants who had been living in the United States illegally could try to stay in the country by going through a process called "suspension of deportation." They had to prove they'd been living in the U.S. for at least seven years, had stayed out of trouble with the law and would suffer "extreme hardship" if they were deported.

But in 1996, a Congress bent on curbing illegal immigration passed controversial legislation known as the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, or IIRIRA. It replaced the suspension standard with a tougher one called "cancellation of removal." Now, immigrants must show that they have lived in the U.S. for ten years and that the hardship -- which can now apply only to the applicant's parents or children, not the applicant himself -- must be "exceptional and extremely unusual." The law also enabled immigrants who had minor crimes on their records to be reclassified as "aggravated felons," denied hearings and tossed out of the country. Suddenly, a guilty plea on a DUI twelve years ago could be deemed grounds for deportation, immigration attorneys say. "I, in effect, become a judge," says INS district director Joe Greene, who oversees Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. "I can basically issue a final order of deportation without a hearing."

Since 1996, several members of Congress have proposed new bills to take some of the harsh sting out of IIRIRA. Colorado senator Wayne Allard, for example, has supported recent efforts to make it easier for immigrants to get specialized visas. Last year he voted for a bill that raised the number of visas available for technical workers, and this year he's behind a follow-up bill that would raise the number further. He also supports a proposed bill that would streamline the visa application process for agricultural workers.