Police believe he set up shop at a flea market and, using multiple aliases, pretended to be an attorney.
He told one man he’d help his family get to the States legally and collected $6,000. He agreed to help a handful of foreign workers get legal status and collected $20,000. He promised someone else he’d assist with the immigration process and collected $10,000 more.
But he never helped anyone, Gwinnett County police said. And he eventually disappeared.
The fugitive, who authorities believe is named Eddi Confesore Bueno-Cabrera, was not a licensed attorney — and was not alone in allegedly taking advantage of vulnerable immigrants looking for help.
The unlicensed practice of law is a long-held but growing concern in immigration populations across the United States, and especially in places like Gwinnett County, where a significant chunk of the population is foreign-born. And while the number of prosecutions, or even police reports, are often small in cases like the one involving Bueno-Cabrera, officials and advocates believe it’s happening more often. The ramifications can be devastating.
“Parents saying my son or daughter is about to be deported because this person promised them a green card and now we can’t find them, these are stories that I hear on a regular basis,” Ethan Pham, a Gwinnett County attorney, said.
On Thursday, Pham joined Gwinnett County Solicitor Rosanna Szabo, other attorneys, law enforcement officers and government officials for a press conference to, in their words, “speak out against scam lawyers who target the immigrant community.” They also released short videos in English, Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese.
The message to immigrant residents? Verify that someone’s actually an attorney before taking legal advice, know your rights, and report it if you’re scammed.
Police are still looking for Bueno-Cabrera.
The unlicensed practice of law is a misdemeanor but often times will carry felony charges like theft by deception along with it.
“There’s really no telling how widespread these practices are,” Szabo said, “without people reporting it.”
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that between 2011 and 2015, 25 percent of Gwinnett’s residents were foreign born. Demographic estimates from 2016 suggest nearly 21 percent of Gwinnett’s population — which has eclipsed 900,000 — is Hispanic. Another 12 percent is Asian.
Those two immigrant populations tend to see the most cases of unlicensed practice of law, officials said Thursday.
In the Hispanic community, individuals who get notary public licenses in the United States and portray themselves as “notarios” create many of the issues. A notario is a different profession that, in many Central and South American countries, does involve some legal training.
The practice has become so commonplace that the American Bar Association has a dedicated “Fight Notario Fraud” project. Just last month, the ABA’s Commission on Immigration released a memo saying it was “deeply concerned” about such situations.
The issue has been a “chronic problem for decades,” the group said, but is “more important now than ever due to the uncertainty and fear resulting from the current immigration climate.”
In Asian communities, similar issues often arise with individuals presenting themselves as “legal office managers” doing the work of attorneys.
“We are encouraging people to speak up,” Szabo said, “and we will follow up and prosecute.”