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With Or Without Overhaul, Immigration Lawyers In Short Supply

People attend a legal clinic for deferred action applicants in New York in August. Immigration attorneys say demand for their services outstrips the nation's supply of trained immigration lawyers.
Richard Drew
People attend a legal clinic for deferred action applicants in New York in August. Immigration attorneys say demand for their services outstrips the nation's supply of trained immigration lawyers.

With immigration a hot-button issue in Washington, some version of immigration reform is likely this year. Even so, immigrant activist Sandra Sanchez concedes that the country might not be ready for an overhaul of its immigration laws.

Sanchez, director of the American Friends Service Committee Iowa's Immigrants Voice Program, doesn't mean that in political terms, but in practical ones. "We need to be prepared for the wave of millions of potential applicants that will be needing ... legal services," she says. "And we will not have enough resources to serve them."

Accompanying any immigration reform will be the need for more immigration attorneys. But even now, immigration lawyers like Amanda Bahena are struggling to meet the demand.

Bahena is meeting with a client at La Fiesta, a restaurant in the northwestern Iowa town of Sioux Center. On top of everything else, she says, she is cleaning up a mess made by a Nebraskan lawyer named Jerre William Moreland, known to many as El Indio or, "The Indian."

With his long flowing white hair and elaborate cane, Moreland cut a fantastical figure. "Kind of a wizardlike appearance to him," as Bahena describes it.

And like a wizard, Bahena says, Moreland seemed to work magic, getting undocumented immigrants work permits. But, she says, his trick turned out to be just that — those work permits weren't a path to citizenship. Instead, they paved the road to deportation.

Bahena says that's because Moreland offered clients political asylum, even though most weren't eligible — a tactic that she calls fraud. And it started to get noticed. Clients abandoned him, the Nebraska Bar Association started asking questions and, in October, Moreland died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Bahena says Moreland and lawyers like him prey on an immigrant's desperation.

"It would be very, very easy to fleece a lot of people with very little problem," she says. "I mean, they are literally coming in and throwing money at you."

That's happening right now, Bahena says. Immigrants are coming into her office and saying, "Let me give you money; put me on the list."

But reform hasn't passed and there is no list. Des Moines immigration lawyer Ann Naffier says some lawyers make money by stressing quantity over quality.

"It's like gambling, because for a few people it will help them," Naffier says. "And then they go and tell all their friends, and everybody shows up and they want to sign up for the same program."

And then, Naffier says, many of them end up in deportation proceedings. "And usually, by that time, the-out-of-state attorney has closed shop and moved elsewhere."

Naffier says there aren't do-overs if you fill out someone's immigration papers wrong. So even after reform passes, it's not like making a mistake on your taxes and then being required to pay more next year. It's making a mistake and being forced to leave the country.

Some attorneys get away with it, she says, because there aren't enough qualified immigration lawyers.

At the Methodist church in the southeastern Iowa city of Ottumwa, the nonprofit group Justice For Our Neighbors is holding its monthly free immigration legal clinic.

Elena Stuart comes here to interpret. She came here as child and is married to an American citizen, but she has lost any tangible proof of when she crossed the border — which means she remains undocumented. She says her case is similar to many here: Some lawyer just didn't do a good job, she says.

"And they either never answer their phone calls, or their offices were never open, or they just skipped town and they didn't give them back their copies of their paperwork," Stuart says.

She knows what a work permit means to an immigrant. When she was fingerprinted for one, she recalls, "I was so excited, and I just drove home so, so excited, and I was telling my husband — we were making plans of everything that we were going to do together because I was going to be able to work and provide [for] my kids."

But three weeks later, Stuart received a denial letter. One of many lawyers she had seen along the way, it turned out, had lost a critical document.

While Stuart hopes immigration reform will bring immigrants out of the shadows, she worries that the light will make them easier targets for fraud.

Copyright 2013 Iowa Public Radio

Sandhya Dirks arrived in Iowa in January of 2012 as a general assignment reporter. Since coming to Des Moines she has covered the Statehouse and traveled across Iowa to bring back stories for IPR. Sandhya was previously a reporter at KALW in San Francisco, covering education and criminal justice issues. Her work was awarded a SPJ Sigma Delta Chi and a regional Edward R. Murrow award.