Complaints Rise Against Immigration Lawyers

Bolivian immigrants Rene and Fanny Saavedra of Gaithersburg with son Alexis. Rene Saavedra won permanent U.S. residency in 2000, but his wife was mistakenly told by their attorney that she would have to wait for her green card.
Bolivian immigrants Rene and Fanny Saavedra of Gaithersburg with son Alexis. Rene Saavedra won permanent U.S. residency in 2000, but his wife was mistakenly told by their attorney that she would have to wait for her green card. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 7, 2007

Complaints against immigration lawyers working in and around the nation's capital are rising, say officials who investigate allegations of attorney misconduct.

Last year, the D.C. Office of Bar Counsel received 59 complaints about immigration lawyers, up from 49 in 2005 -- when, for the first time, immigration law drew more complaints than any other specialized practice area.

The bar counsel office is finalizing 2006 totals for other categories, but complaints about immigration law appear likely to rank near the top again.

Such a distinction is no small feat in a city flush with lawyers and no small worry in a region long established as a destination for immigrants, particularly those from Africa and Latin America.

"There are a lot of unhappy immigrant clients out there, and some of them have very good reason to be unhappy," said D.C. Deputy Bar Counsel Elizabeth A. Herman, who has handled immigration complaints for more than a decade.

From the simply confused to the unquestionably criminal, bad lawyers have become a concern for the immigration bar and for the nation's immigration tribunals.

Federal sanctions have been rising in recent years. Established in 2000, the bar counsel at the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the Justice Department branch that oversees U.S. immigration courts and the Board of Immigration Appeals, disciplined 47 immigration lawyers last year and 54 the previous year -- up from 22 in 2000.

"You have a very vulnerable population," said Jennifer Barnes, who has been the bar counsel for the immigration review office since the position was created. Many immigrants, she said, don't speak English, and few understand the statutes and regulations that are second perhaps only to the tax code in complexity. "And you have attorneys out there looking to take advantage of that vulnerability," she said.

Perhaps the most notorious Washington area immigration hustler in recent history is Arlington lawyer Samuel G. Kooritzky, who was imprisoned in 2003 after he was convicted of engaging in a massive fraud. Kooritzky's firm, Capital Law Centers, specialized in applying for state labor certifications, which businesses use when they cannot find a U.S. citizen for a particular job. An immigrant can then use a certification to apply to the federal government for a green card.

Kooritzky's firm submitted thousands of fake applications for labor certifications without telling the businesses they were being used. He charged immigrants $8,000 to $20,000 for the service and raked in millions before the fraud was discovered. Kooritzky received a 10-year sentence.

The breadth of Kooritzky's criminal enterprise is hard to match, but there are some contenders. In November, a few were in court in the District.

A federal judge sent a Northwest Washington lawyer, Mohamed Alamgir, to prison for more than three years. From 1996 to 2003, Alamgir filed hundreds of false labor and immigration forms as part of a scheme to obtain permanent residency for immigrants by claiming they had jobs awaiting them in the United States, prosecutors said.


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