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— The situations that usually disqualify aliens from relief in Immigration Court make some of them vulnerable to unethical lawyers. Upon questioning someone who is seeking help, a lawyer might learn that a disqualifying situation will make it impossible to obtain relief but take pay on the promise to help anyway. The alien then loses in court and is out the money. But the offending lawyer is safe from reprisal, because his client gets removed from the U.S.

A number of immigration attorneys in San Diego say that such practices are not uncommon. But they are reluctant to accuse any of their colleagues, not only for fear of negative repercussions, but because the nature of practicing law makes it difficult to know when the ethical violations are taking place. As the first response of physicians is to try to heal the patient, the lawyer's first response is to inquire whether the client might have circumstances that could offer relief, even if those circumstances are minor exceptions to harsh rules. Once some attorneys go that far, they feel they have taken on the case and deserve to be paid for their services.

Derrick Porratadoria, an administrative assistant for the nonprofit Center for Law and Justice, says that another type of functionary sometimes creates even greater problems for aliens who have problems with San Diego's Immigration Court. "The notarios in Mexico and other countries down south are like attorneys. I'm sure in their country they're quite good. They help people with birth certificates and marriages and other things, but here in the U.S. they play attorneys, and half of our work is fixing what they do wrong on the paperwork.

"The notarios get people deported," says Porratadoria. "But the second Hispanics see the word 'notary,' they trust it more than an attorney, because attorneys in Mexico are the thieves. It's opposite of what the situation is here. People trust notarios because their neighborhood notary always helped them at home."

A particular predator comes to my attention through the rumor mill. At the Capri Hotel at the corner of E Street and Union, right behind Immigration Court's courtrooms in the Federal Building downtown, I check out the stories. The hotel's manager, who asks not to be named, confirms them. For over two years, she says, a man named Joseph Bacho rented an office on the ground floor of the hotel. Neither residents nor employees inquired into his business but did notice many Hispanic people visiting his office.

As soon as Bacho moved out several months ago, many of those same people appeared at the hotel claiming he had taken thousands of their dollars to help them in court. And now he'd disappeared.

The Capri Hotel got a forwarding address in El Centro from Bacho and posted it on the door of his former office. But within an hour of its posting, the Capri's manager saw a woman who had worked for him pulling it off the office door -- and told her to tack it back up. The woman cooperated and left, but an hour later it was gone again.

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