Downed by Law

Immigration attorney Antonio Salazar's clients got more than they bargained for—namely, deportation.

The doorbell rang at 7 a.m.Barbara Chaudhary was putting on makeup and so asked her husband, Masud, to get out of bed and answer.As it turned out, he was the one the visitors wanted to see. Agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had come to the Bothell home to take Masud away.A native of Pakistan and a citizen of Canada, the 50-something engineer once held a green card. But he'd pleaded guilty a few years before to a theft charge involving some items pilfered from Target. As a result, an immigration judge had ordered him expelled from the country.Even so, Masud and his wife were shocked to see the agents. After all, his case was being appealed in federal court—or so they thought."I have a lawyer. I gave him fees and everything," Masud told the agents.But when Masud's wife mentioned their lawyer's name, Antonio Salazar, it elicited a surprising response from the agents: laughter."Salazar? You guys used Salazar as a lawyer?"Unbeknownst to the Chaudharys, Salazar had never filed an appeal of their case. And this was by no means the first time the attorney had failed to follow through on a case.So as a school bus rolled up for the Chaudharys' oldest daughter (then in middle school), and their preschooler was asking what was happening to Daddy, the agents handcuffed Masud and transported him to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, where he was kept for more than a month before being deported to Canada."It was just heartbreaking," Barbara recalled at a disciplinary hearing regarding Salazar's conduct held by the Washington State Bar Association last October, a year and a half after Masud was kicked out of the country. A nurse at Children's Hospital, she said she felt the trauma all the more acutely because she had previously lost a husband and a son in a fatal car accident.Salazar, who works out of a Lake City Way office and frequently represents clients in the courtrooms of the Northwest Detention Center, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did Barbara Chaudhary. (Her husband could not be located.) At the hearing, however, Salazar said he'd told Masud he was not filing the appeal until he received the last $500 of his $1,500 fee.Hearing Officer Kimberly Boyce, in her findings of fact, concluded that Salazar's claim was not credible, especially since the Chaudharys had a receipt marked with the words "payment in full for 9th Circuit petition."The Chaudharys' grievance was just one of six against Salazar that were reviewed by the hearing officer in October. Most told a similar tale—of missed deadlines, work never performed, and life-altering consequences for Salazar's clients and their families. In fact, a stack of Bar Association records several feet high—dating back to 1990 and encompassing seven prior disciplinary actions involving 13 clients—tell that story, as do multiple lawsuits and Seattle Weekly interviews with Salazar's clients and colleagues.Given that history, and the more recent cases, Boyce recommended that the bar's disciplinary board ask the state Supreme Court to disbar Salazar. Three weeks ago, the board made that request, and now Salazar's fate is before the court. The court's decision is expected soon.Veteran immigration attorney Bart Klein wonders why it took bar officials so long to take this step. "They've been sitting and doing nothing against him for years," he contends.If Salazar is finally disbarred, it will be the end of a 35-year legal career that has been both celebrated and strange. Coming from a farm-working family of Mexican descent, Salazar was one of the first Latino attorneys in this state, according to several of his colleagues and former associates. Despite years of complaints, he developed a high-volume practice, while also running a side business producing risqué calendars featuring buxom "Seattle Latinas."Salazar is emblematic of a subset of immigration attorneys who are negligent, incompetent, predatory, or all three. They hang out their shingles within a byzantine immigration system that requires expert command, but offer none, taking advantage of people desperate for their help and messing up in ways their clients may not understand until it's too late."It's a significant problem because the stakes are so high," says Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.The proportion of bad lawyers in the field may be relatively small. Only four immigration attorneys in Washington were disciplined last year, and eight the year before, together representing less than 3 percent of the 473 attorneys who identify their specialty as immigration law. Baron says the effect is compounded by the fact that they, like Salazar, often run their businesses as "mass operations."Celeste Addai is a native-born American who works at a Medicaid office at Harborview Medical Center. Her husband is a Ghanaian who came here on a student visa in 1991 and overstayed. When they married in 2001, he normally would have been considered a good candidate for citizenship, given that he had come here legally and committed no crimes.But although the couple didn't know it, his fate was already close to sealed by the time he wed. Today he could be deported at any time, which is why the couple meets only in secret.Over lunch at Harborview's cafeteria, Addai attributes her husband's situation to years of bad legal advice that has cost the couple some $20,000. "I'm a U.S. citizen," she says. "I never knew how many crooked attorneys there were out there."One, by her account, promised to do pro bono legal work for the couple, then sent a collection agency after them for an outstanding fee of $4,000. The collection agency sued, but a King County District Court judge found there was no proof of debt and ordered the agency to pay Addai and her husband $500 instead. Other attorneys simply made promises they couldn't keep.In a crowded field, though, Addai singles out one attorney for particular scorn: Salazar, someone she now calls "the worst attorney you could go to."Addai's husband first went to Salazar for help in the mid-1990s, before the couple met. Once a computer-science student, he had left school due to financial problems, and was therefore no longer eligible for a student visa. He decided to apply for asylum instead. He tells his story in a declaration he later submitted to the Department of Homeland Security.In the late '80s, he says, he had participated in protests against Ghana's Marxist president at the time, Jerry Rawlings. As a consequence, he was jailed for three months, tortured, and—he heard via dissident military officers—scheduled for execution. While he escaped that fate, and Ghana, with the help of the dissident officers, he later heard he had been sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison.Immigration judges don't just take immigrants' claims of persecution at face value, however. "There's a lot of work that needs to be done to prove the case," says Robert Pauw, who many years later took over representation of Addai's husband, and whom Addai considers the only good lawyer the couple has had. "An immigrant's lawyer is certainly obligated to do that," he says.Salazar, who kept a rotating crop of young attorneys in his office, assigned one named Christina Aquino to the case. "One time when I went to Salazar's office, I asked for Christina, but I was told she wasn't working there any more," Addai's husband says in his declaration. He says he was assigned a new lawyer, one in whom he lacked confidence because she was newly arrived from India and didn't seem to have much experience. "Nevertheless," he says, "I did not think I had a choice since the time for my hearing was near."At the hearing, he says he presented the judge with a letter from a lawyer in Ghana attesting to the 20-year sentence. The judge said she wanted more evidence, however, and postponed making a decision.Addai's husband was left on his own to gather whatever proof he could. Finally, he reached a former friend now living in Germany who said he had a court record verifying the 20-year sentence.Excitedly, Addai's husband called Salazar's office to relate the news. "I called the office many times, but no one talked to me." At last, he reached an assistant, who told him that the judge had already denied his asylum application. Worse still, the deadline for submitting an appeal had already passed."I was astonished," he says in his declaration. Like Masud Chaudhary, he was illegal without even knowing it.A lot has happened in the case since then, but the most damaging chapter in the story remains the bungled asylum petition, which resulted in a deportation order. Pauw has since tried to reopen the case. But according to the immigration system—a legal arena subject to far less public scrutiny than criminal or civil courts—the Department of Homeland Security must agree to do so. It has refused.At 5:30 in the morning on a cold January day in 2007, ICE agents came to the door of the couple's Eastside home, where they lived with their then-18-month-old son."We're not answering the door," Addai says she told her husband. Finally the agents left—and so, some hours later, did Addai's husband.Traveling on foot, taking just as many belongings as he could carry, he disappeared into an underground life. Afraid to return home or seek work for fear that ICE agents might return, he has ever since then been shuffling among different friends' houses. He meets with his wife and child maybe once a week, for a couple hours at a time, at locations they judge to be safe.Salazar was a bright prospect when Roberto Maestas first encountered him in the late '60s. Maestas, a former director of El Centro de la Raza on Beacon Hill, was then a graduate student taking Latin American Studies courses at the University of Washington. He says he had helped lead campus protests demanding more minority students and staff on campus, and as a result of that pressure, the university started taking recruiting trips around the state to find some.One such trip to the Yakima Valley, home to many Latino farm workers, turned up Salazar. Maestas remembers him as a "smooth" kid—"good-looking, tall, and he spoke good English."Salazar majored in Latin American Studies, graduating with a B.A. in 1972, according to UW records. He then got his law degree from the university in 1975. He did a stint at the downtown firm McDonald, Hogue and Bayless, and then formed a partnership with a lawyer he met there, according to Carol Edward, who became one of Salazar's first junior associates in 1984.Handling criminal as well as immigration cases, he seemed capable at the time, Edward says. She adds that in court "he could think on his feet" and "establish a rapport with a jury or judge." He also had a way with clients, according to Edward: "They trusted him."It helped that Salazar was one of the few Latino attorneys in Seattle at that time. Maestas recalls that among Hispanics needing legal advice, the reaction was: "Oh, man, I got to go to him."Eventually, Salazar began to actively court Latino clients with ads in Spanish-language newspapers like El Mundo and El Siete Dias. He advertised himself and his associates as "bilingual attorneys"—an attractive proposition for clients who in some cases were not fluent in English or even literate in their native tongue. That was true, for instance, of one of the clients whose case was part of the recent bar proceedings. This client, from the Mexican town of Michoacán, was also offered a "discount" by one of Salazar's associates.At some point in the past decade, Salazar started tapping into another side of the Hispanic market. You can see this side interest on his MySpace pages, which identify him as a "fotógrafo of beautiful Latinas," a calendar publisher, and the director of something called "Chula Vista Media." The pages include not only pictures of the 60ish, gray-haired, mustached Salazar, but multiple shots of his calendars and models—most showing lots of cleavage.Chula Vista Media has a separate MySpace page, where its address is listed as 810 Third Ave., the marble-halled downtown Seattle edifice called the Central Building where Salazar used to rent office space before trading it for humbler Lake City digs. Andrew Oliver, who worked as a Salazar associate in both locales, leaving in October 2009 after two and a half years, says that Salazar had a room in both offices that served as his photography studios. Mostly the shoots would take place on weekends, but occasionally Oliver says he would see models come in and out during the week.It's unclear how Salazar's legal business might have benefited from the side project. The calendar does not promote his services as an attorney. In any event, the clients kept coming, but the service they received, it appears, began to suffer.Edward, the former associate, says that what made an immigration lawyer capable in the '70s and '80s did not necessarily do so in the '90s and '00s. Edward herself recently got the immigration court to reopen the case of a former Salazar client on the grounds of "ineffective assistance of counsel." (Salazar had allegedly failed to inform the client of a deportation order.)Courtroom proceedings used to be much looser and "personality driven," she says. What mattered was how you argued before a judge. But much more paperwork came to be required, and the deadlines for submitting forms became exceedingly strict, "way stricter than Superior Court," Edward says. The laws about who could and couldn't stay in this country were also ever-changing.It was apparent even to some who worked in Salazar's office that he wasn't keeping up.When Manny Rios, fresh out of Gonzaga University's law school, was looking for a first job in 1997, Salazar's office seemed like a natural fit. "He had an all-Latino firm. His goal was helping Latinos," says Rios, who now has his own firm in Seattle and works as a consultant to the Mexican consulate.He recalls that on his very first day working for Salazar, he walked into immigration court with some 10 cases his boss had assigned to him. All attempted to use a strategy that up until that year had been a reasonable gamble. Illegal immigrants would themselves initiate deportation proceedings—essentially turning themselves in—so that they could then proclaim themselves eligible for certain escape hatches in the law that would allow them to stay in the U.S.What Rios says he was too green to realize, and what Salazar either didn't know or didn't tell him, is that a recent change in the law had made it almost impossible to win such cases. Among other things, immigrants now had to show that their departures would create "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship," something they'd never had to prove before. The routine business of tearing a family apart through deportation did not meet that standard.Rios' clients had evidence of no such hardship. "Every single one of them got deported that day," he remembers. "I was almost in tears." The kicker, he says: "Basically, all these people paid for their own deportation" by giving money to Salazar.Even so, Rios says, "That's not as bad as what happened later. We knew the standard was impossible to meet." Yet, Rios says, Salazar continued to tell people "Yeah, you're eligible," and put them into deportation proceedings.Salazar was nothing if not upbeat about a client's prospects. His trademark line, according to Rios: "Don't worry about it. I'll take care of it."Oliver adds that Salazar, who personally interviewed every client and decided whether or not to take on each case, "didn't like to turn anyone away." The former associate says he believes it's because his onetime boss "genuinely liked to help people," and was not seeking to exploit them for financial gain.Salazar lives rather modestly in a four-bedroom pink rambler in Lake Forest Park, according to King County property records.Since few clients were turned away, the volume of cases was overwhelming, even though Salazar worked from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. most days, according to Oliver. "It's hard to do an excellent job when you have so many cases," he says. "I suspect that's the root of most of the problems."The consequences were disastrous not only for immigration cases.Rossanne Sosa, now a dentist in San Diego, had picked Salazar's name out of the Yellow Pages in 1996 because he advertised himself as Spanish-speaking. The blonde, blue-eyed Sosa didn't need translation services, nor help with immigration. Rather, she was in the process of divorcing a Puerto Rican who had returned to the island, and she figured she'd need an attorney who spoke Spanish to handle the case.About to accept a position as an Air Force captain, she moved from Olympia to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. There she received two sets of documents from Puerto Rico written in Spanish, one delivered by a U.S. Marshal. Each time, she says, she immediately sent them to a Salazar associate who had been assigned to work with her. And each time she was fobbed off with reassurances that she needn't worry.It turned out, however, that the documents were extremely worrying: They contained notice of a custody hearing for the couple's toddler in Puerto Rico. When Sosa didn't turn up, the father was granted exclusive custody.He showed up on her doorstep at 5 a.m. one morning to take their daughter, Sofia, back to Puerto Rico. "I just had to hand her over," Sosa says of Sofia, then 2. "She's looking at me, like, 'What's going on?' It was devastating. "Sosa says it took her three years to get Sofia back. She later sued Salazar for malpractice in King County Court. In court documents, Salazar claimed he had advised Sosa that she should get a lawyer in Puerto Rico, which she denies. She says she settled the case for a nominal amount when she learned that Salazar, unlike the vast majority of attorneys, did not have malpractice insurance.Many clients, of course, want to be told that they needn't worry, their case will turn out just fine. That's part of the problem, says Baron of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. "People are desperate to get [a lawyer] to tell them 'Yes, we can help you,'" he says. If one lawyer refuses to take a case, they'll look for someone else who will.And some lawyers deliberately take advantage of that desperation, occasionally even resorting to fraud to tackle dubious cases. Baron points to a trial last November in Sacramento, in which three lawyers were found guilty of conspiracy to defraud the government after submitting as many as 1,000 asylum applications supported by phony documents.In addition to lawyers, some so-called immigration consultants or "notarios" employ dubious methods. One self-proclaimed immigration "expert" from Kent named Steven Mahoney admitted last year to filing almost 100 false asylum petitions. His tack was to have clients say they were subject to persecution back home because they were gay—whether they were or not.State Attorney General Rob McKenna is currently conducting investigations into whether 11 other notarios around the state are giving out misleading and possibly fraudulent legal advice.According to Ann Benson, now director of an immigration project at the Washington Defender Association, which provides assistance to public defenders around the state, lawyers as well as consultants can fall down on the job simply because immigration law "has become so unbelievably complex.""Not only that," she adds, "it doesn't make sense."To give a prime example, a host of crimes are considered "aggravated felonies" under immigration law, and immigrants, whether they come here legally or not, are (with few exceptions) subject to mandatory detention and deportation if they commit one of these. Some of the crimes—theft, for example—are not even felonies in criminal court, let alone aggravated ones. (Theft is considered an aggravated felony in immigration court if it results in a sentence of a year or more.)The list of "aggravated felonies" was expanded by Congress in 1996 amid an anti-immigration backlash. Partly due to increased enforcement—stepped up after 9/11—immigration law became a burgeoning field of practice. Whereas before the 1996 law, the state chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association had something like 30 members, now there are approximately 300, according to Benson.To make the finances work in a legal niche that serves many low-income people, it's common for attorneys to rely on volume, Benson adds.While that can be a problem in other areas of the law as well, most notably public defense, oversight is particularly weak in immigration law. Judges, burdened by crushing caseloads, may tolerate bad attorneys in their courtroom both because they want to move on to the next case and because the judges figure that poor counsel "is better than none at all," Benson says. Unlike in criminal court, there's no right to representation in immigration proceedings.And who besides judges are going to know when immigration attorneys are negligent? Clients can complain to the Bar Association, which is empowered to suspend attorneys on its own as well as to seek disbarment orders from the state Supreme Court. However, says Benson: "When you are ineffective, your clients get deported."But if many don't complain to the bar for that reason, some do, either because they remain here illegally or find other lawyers for appeals. Since 1997, as a result of such complaints, the Bar Association has disciplined at least 27 immigration attorneys, according to a Seattle Weekly review of Bar Association records. Ten of those cases have resulted in disbarment, or in an attorney stepping down in lieu of disbarment.Dan Danilov was one of the latter cases. Danilov, the child of Russian émigrés, was once a ubiquitous presence in the field—sought out by Cold War refugees, quoted by the media when immigration stories came up, and draped with gold jewelry from all the money he made from his practice.That came to an end in 2002, when a Bar Association hearing officer recommended that Danilov be disbarred due to misconduct in seven cases. Among the findings: Danilov failed to file documents he had claimed to, didn't adequately research his cases, told a client he would handle her case for $5,000 and then demanded $5,000 more, and, in one badly handled case, assigned an associate who fell asleep at a hearing.Danilov, then in his 70s, went on "inactive" status due to an unspecified disability and was never formally disbarred.The remarkable thing about Salazar's extensive file is that he kept making the same mistakes again. In the Bar Association's first disciplinary proceeding, in 1990, Salazar admitted he had not done work he'd promised to do (seek extension of a client's work visa and apply for the client's permanent residency). In another case heard at the same hearing, a client testified that he had hired Salazar to apply for a work visa, but no documents were ever submitted. (Salazar claimed he'd told the client he wouldn't handle the case. With the facts in dispute, Salazar was cited for "failing to clearly and effectively" communicate with his client.)During the proceedings, Salazar told the Bar Association that he had added staff and started using a computerized calendar, because the complaints had impressed upon him the need to keep track of cases and communicate with his clients. Citing Salazar's "efforts to improve," the Bar Association chose to put a "letter of censure" in the attorney's file rather than suspend him.Yet by 1994, a client had again complained to the Bar Association that Salazar had failed to follow through, in this case by filing an appeal in criminal court, and had also neglected to keep his client informed of what was happening. The Bar Association "admonished" Salazar, an even softer sanction than a censure.The bar admonished him again in 1998 for failing to cooperate with investigations into other matters, and in 1999 for submitting an immigration appeal one day late. Another missed deadline on an immigration appeal earned him a censure in 2001.In 2005, the bar suspended him for similar misconduct, but only for 30 days. The association went back to more lenient treatment—a "reprimand" (similar to a censure, a sanction the bar no longer uses)—in 2008 after the association found that Salazar had misrepresented his client's position in settlement talks.Asked in an interview why the bar had not taken firmer action before now, bar officials declined to address the specifics of Salazar's case. However, external relations director Steve Larsen noted that the bar has to maintain "a real delicate balance. It's a pretty serious thing to say, 'We're going to take your livelihood away.'"In addition to the Chaudhary case, there are two others in which, according to hearing officer Boyce's findings, Salazar failed to inform clients of deportation orders until they had little or no chance to appeal. In another case, the attorney did no work at all for seven months, then prepared a motion that he never filed; in yet another, Salazar missed an obvious route to legal residency for the wife and children of a green-card holder.If Salazar is disbarred by the state Supreme Court, it won't be the end of the story. Clients are always left hanging when that happens, but the hazard is much greater here, given his volume of cases."We are facing a disaster," Bart Klein wrote in a letter to the bar in early March. "As far as I can tell, Mr. Salazar has been collecting case after case, with no intention of completing the work, and it appears, since he is training no associates, [plans] to take off with the money."Klein asked the association to immediately suspend Salazar's practice. The bar has asked the Supreme Court that Salazar be immediately suspended, pending the judgment.In the meantime, his Lake City office is open for business. Salazar was there on a recent day, though he said through a receptionist that he was too busy to meet with a reporter who arrived at his door. On somebody's speakerphone, a recording from the immigration court system could be heard. A few pieces of Latino art hung on the walls and a box of files stood on the receptionist's desk.He continues to advertise in the Spanish-language press, though a recurring ad in El Mundo gives his old Third Avenue address. It also contains a photo of his supposed staff that includes at least one associate, Adolfo Ojeda-Casimiro, who left in 2006 and whom Salazar sued for allegedly pocketing fees that should have gone to the firm. (Salazar later dropped the suit.) Perhaps the outdated information is no surprise, though, given the attention to detail, or lack thereof, that Salazar has become known for.Reached by phone in Duvall, where he now works, Ojeda-Casimiro declined to comment on the photo or his experience with Salazar. "It's something I want to put behind me," he says.nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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