SEATTLE - The Washington Attorney General's Office has announced three new settlements with individuals, including a Walla Walla man, accused of illegally providing immigration advice.
Frank Herrera and Herrera's Services Unlimited will pay more than $10,000 to reimburse the state's litigation costs, in addition to restitution to eligible consumers, under the agreement to be filed in Walla Walla County Superior Court, according to an AG's Office news release issued Friday.
Officials said Herrera helped file documents for a man who applied for petitions to bring his children from Mexico to the United States.
Many years later, after one of the children, Maria Villegas Bales, had already come to the U.S. from Mexico, Herrera advised her and her siblings to waste no time in filing applications for green cards. Villegas Bales, now in her 30's and living in Walla Walla, paid him more than $350 in 2008 to help her fill out new paperwork, according to the news release.
But she reportedly lost that money, as well as the government's filing fee of more than $2,000. At an immigration office in Eastern Washington, Villegas Bales learned that the papers had not been filed correctly. She also soon was notified that her application was denied and she would be deported.
A Pasco attorney, Carlos Villarreal, was able to help her avoid deportation. A few weeks ago, Villegas Bales became a legal permanent resident. Her husband and a sister also became permanent residents and her father became a U.S. citizen.
Latinos across Washington state lose thousands of dollars, their jobs and the chance to live legally in the U.S. because of erroneous legal advice and a frequently exploited translation hitch, the AG's Office news release says. The other settlements announced Friday involve the owner of an immigration and translation service in Yakima and a married couple in Skagit County.
"The defendants improperly gave legal advice and used titles such as ‘notario' and ‘notary public,' which can confuse immigrants," Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna said in a statement. "Worse, our investigation showed some individuals were given inaccurate advice that prevented them from obtaining immigration benefits they might have otherwise qualified for."
"The victims of these notarios are hard-working immigrants who are entitled to live and work here legally," McKenna continued. "They are trying to comply with the complex laws that allow them to stay in this country but their efforts are sabotaged by unlicensed immigration assistants who do not know or keep up with immigration law."
The settlements don't require the defendants to admit any wrongdoing, but failure to comply with the terms could result in additional civil penalties. They must display signs in their offices informing potential customers that they aren't attorneys and are prohibited from giving advice about obtaining visas, work permits, citizenship or any other immigration status.
Assistant Attorney General Jim Sugarman, of the state's Consumer Protection Division, led the settlement negotiations. He said in a statement in the news release that immigration is one of the most complicated areas of the law.
"Only an experienced, licensed attorney can give you reliable advice on how and when to apply for a visa or citizenship," Sugarman said. "Our goal is to protect immigrants from those who aren't qualified to make those recommendations."
The news release says the Consumer Protection Division is investigating more than two dozen other notario cases and expects to bring additional enforcement actions.