San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a civil lawsuit today against disbarred immigration lawyer, calling him “one of San Francisco’s most notorious predators.”
At a City Hall press conference this morning, Herrera accused Martin Guajardo of “defrauding tens of thousands of vulnerable individuals out of millions of dollars” over 35 years.
Herrera said Guajardo preyed on every immigrant group in San Francisco, including the city’s Russian, Latino, and Indian communities, through aggressive and savvy marketing.
Guajardo, who was disbarred in 2008, has continued to operate out of his offices at 555 Clay Street using the law license of Christopher Stender, a San Diego-based attorney, who is also named in the complaint.
In some cases, “money was taken out of their pockets and work was not done.” In others, Herrera said, Guajardo would deliberately string immigration cases along by filing additional petitions, which put immigrants’ legal status at risk.
Guajardo and Stender were also hit today with a separate, private, class action lawsuit brought by former clients.
That case, which is being handled pro bono by the Menlo Park-law firm Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe, has three named plaintiffs.
One client, Jagdeep Singh, is an Indian immigrant whose wife and two children are both U.S. citizens. According to the complaint, Guajardo charged Singh $95,000, falsely promising him that he could obtain a green card and political asylum even though such a request had already been denied.
The complaint said Guajardo urged Singh to stay in the United States illegally rather leaving temporarily and reapplying for legal entry into the United States.
“Singh, who worked as a store clerk and earned a modest wage, spent most of his earnings on Guajardo’s fees,” the complaint stated.
Eventually, Singh was forced to leave the country permenantly, “leaving behind his wife and two young children,” according to the complaint.
Another named plaintiff, Jaime Hernandez of San Francisco, paid Guajardo and Stender tens of thousands of dollars over three years to handle the case of his son, Hector, who faced deportation in 2007.
According to the complaint, Guajardo and Stender continued to take thousands of dollars from Jaime Hernandez for years, filing motions they knew would not succeed.
The two lawyers “routinely pepare[d] and filed frivolous motions and appeals for the purpose of creating further appeals, knowing the frivolous motions and appeals will not provide any benefit to the clients but instead an opportunity to demand additional fees,” the complaint said.
The Bay Citizen called both Guajardo and Stender for comment on the lawsuit, but they did not respond by deadline.
Herrera was joined at the press conference by immigrant advocacy groups, who praised the city attorney’s intervention.
Mark Silverman, director of immigration policy at the Immigration Legal Resource Center, called the city’s lawsuit “historic.”
“San Francisco is providing leadership for the country by going after abusive predators," Silverman said.
Anoop Preshad, a staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, said over the years he regularly came into contact with immigrants defrauded by Guajardo. Some have since been deported, he said. Others are in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) department.
Silverman said the cases he remembers most are those in which Guajardo charged in excess of $60,000 for work that most immigration attorneys would do for a tenth of the cost.
Preshad said the fraud has gone on for more than three decades in part because immigrants are wary of coming forward.
“The clients are scared of talking to the government,” he said.
No criminal charges have been filed against either Guajardo or Stender, although Herrera said that the city attorney’s office will be sharing information with the district attorney’s office.
The city attorney’s office has scheduled a free legal clinic for people who believe they have been the victim of immigration fraud at the hands of Guajardo, Stender, and their firm on Dec. 1, from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Hastings College of the Law, 200 McAllister Street in San Francisco.