OAKLAND -- The city has won a record $15.1 million judgment against a company it said preyed on immigrants seeking to remain in the U.S. legally.
American Legal Services, according to the city, falsely billed itself as immigration law experts, and routinely botched visa and citizenship applications after charging exorbitant upfront fees.
One couple seeking citizenship ended up getting deported, leaving behind their three U.S. born children. In another case, the company advised a woman to return to Mexico with her two daughters so that she could apply for a visa, but immigration officials never let her back into the country to be reunited with her husband.
"This was a morally bankrupt enterprise," City Attorney Barbara Parker said Thursday during an event announcing the judgment filed earlier this month by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Colwell.
Parker said the company, which had three Oakland offices, claimed to have special influence with immigration officials and gave clients the impression that they were eligible for green cards even when they were not.
Victor Gomez Jr., 26, of Oakland, said his parents, both undocumented immigrants, visited the company's East Oakland office in 2009 seeking help obtaining citizenship.
"(The company) said it would be easy because I am a U.S. citizen," Gomez said. Instead, the couple, who had lived in the U.S. for decades with no threat of deportation, started receiving inquires from immigration authorities. In 2012, they agreed to return to Mexico rather than face a deportation hearing.
"I can't even say what I feel about it," said Gomez, who now lives with his brother. Their sister, who is still in high school, had to move to an aunt's home in Los Angeles.
"We used to all live together," he said. "Imagine you're used to your mom's cooking, and now me and my brother have to do everything ourselves."
Oakland filed the lawsuit in 2010 under a state law that allows it to target immigration fraud.
The business owners, listed in court papers as Musa Bala Balde, Irene Penaloza Balde, and An-Nissa Hamza, did not appear at the trial last month. They apparently fled to a nation in Eastern Africa, their former attorney, Tiega Varlack, said.
Varlack said the owners could seek another trial if they return. "I hope that they do, because I don't think the $15 million judgment was warranted," she said.
The judgment prohibits the company from consulting immigrants or "working within the field of law." One company office, operating under the name Legal Experts, at 3230 Fruitvale Ave. had not been shut down, city officials said. The business was closed Thursday afternoon.
The city does not anticipate collecting the full $15.1 million, which is the largest judgment it has ever won in litigation. So far it has collected more than $200,000 -- more than enough to refund money lost by the 18 victims listed in the city's lawsuit.
Rafael Casanova, a 43-year-old landscaper from Richmond, said he paid $7,000 to the company that effectively split up his family when it advised his wife to travel to Mexico and apply for a visa for which she did not qualify. She had to stay in Mexico and they ended up getting divorced.
"I finally feel a lot of healing," he said, "even though my family got broken up."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435