City of Oakland accuses company of swindling families

January 28, 2010 7:34:22 PM PST
Oakland City Attorney John Russo filed suit today against a company that he alleges is defrauding immigrant families who are seeking legal residency in the U.S.

Speaking at a news conference at City Hall, Russo alleged that American Legal Services is "a criminal enterprise that is acting as an outright criminal menace based on swindling families of immigrants."

Russo said American Legal Services represents itself as a law office but employs no attorneys.

He said evidence shows that the company has repeatedly defrauded Oakland families by making false promises of citizenship and charging exorbitant fees up front, which in some cases are the life savings of the victims.

According to Russo, once the company has its victims' money, it routinely acts against the interests of those seeking help by giving false legal advice and botching immigration applications.

In some cases the result is that immigrants are deported, Russo said.

The company advertises heavily and promises to provide immigrants with services such as getting visas and green cards and obtaining citizenship, according to Russo.

Most of American Legal Services' offices are in East Oakland, where there are many immigrants, particularly Latino immigrants, he said. One of its offices is near the Oakland Police Department's Eastmont Substation in the Eastmont Mall.

In addition to American Legal Services, the suit, which was filed in Alameda County Superior Court, names as defendants company owners Musa and Irene Balde, who live in Alameda, and employee Glenda Venegas.

A man who answered the phone at the company's office at the Eastmont mall said the Baldes weren't in today. A message at their home in Alameda seeking comment on the lawsuit wasn't returned.

Referring to the infamous Wall Street swindler, Russo alleged that Musa and Irene Balde "are the Bernard Madoffs of the immigration world."

Russo said the suit seeks restitution and damages of at least $150,000 for a group of six victims and civil penalties of up to $8.2 million for violating the state's Immigration Consultants Act and the California Penal Code.

Although the suit only names six victims, Russo said that based on the evidence that's been gathered by his office it appears there could be hundreds of victims of similar scams in Oakland and he's keeping an eye on other companies that may be defrauding immigrants.

"We want to serve notice to others who are engaging in despicable acts that we'll file similar lawsuits if we find enough evidence against them," Russo said.

He said his office, in conjunction with various other legal groups, will hold an immigration workshop at City Hall from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Feb. 27 that will include private consultations with immigration attorneys on how to avoid fraud.