Police are investigating a South Bay woman after an undocumented family reported her for falsely saying she was an immigration attorney and taking their money. State and local officials say immigrants are a prime target for alleged crime.
A.J. Aguirre first told her story on NBC 7. She said she was initially afraid to go to police because of some of her family members' immigration status, which is they are not legally allowed to live or work in the United States.
Aguirre said her family gave a woman, who they thought was an attorney, $3,000 for legal help and immigration services. She said they met the woman at her family's church and made the payments over a period of a couple weeks in February 2015.
She said she filed a report with police and NBC 7 Investigates has confirmed National City Police have an open investigation into the woman.
After working with the woman for a few days, Aguirre said she began to mistrust her, so she secretly recorded the woman's Feb. 4 conversation with her family.
Two days later, Aguirre says the woman never showed up to an immigration appointment she said she would attend. That’s the same time Aguirre said the woman stopped responding to texts and calls.
NBC 7 Investigates had an audio tech expert confirm the recordings do not exhibit evidence of being altered.
On the recording, the woman can be heard telling Aguirre and her family how to respond to questions at an upcoming immigration hearing.
"They are going to ask you how much you paid me. Zero," the woman can be heard saying. "I have not charged you one penny. You paid immigration."
But Aguirre said that is not true. She said her family had already made several cash payments to the woman.
On the recording, the woman identifies herself as Micallela Aguilera Coleman. She can be heard offering advice on how to answer questions from immigration officials about how some of the family members got into the United States.
"'I don't even want to remember the nightmare,' that's what you say," Aguilera said on the recording. "'I came in so many times, I don't know. Sometimes, it was a coyote. Sometimes, I ran across. Now, I want a better life for myself. I have a daughter and I want to fight for this. I thank my lawyer for helping me,' that's what you say."
Aguilera is also heard on the recording saying she has collected tens of thousands of dollars from other clients.
NBC 7 Investigates checked state bar websites for licensed attorneys in all 50 states, but could not find Aguilera listed as an attorney in any of the databases under any variation of her name. She also has not returned multiple calls from NBC 7 and requests for comment.
Court records show Aguilera has been convicted in California for charges that include the unauthorized practice of law, possession of bad checks, and fraud. We've also learned from local law enforcement officials that she is currently wanted by Michigan state police on suspicion of fraud.
News reports from WWMT-TV, a local TV station in Grand Rapids, Michigan highlighted Aguilera's medical telemarketing company in July 2014, after 15 employees told the news station she hadn't paid them, but had collected a $65 background check fee.
More recently, Aguirre said over a period of about two weeks, between Feb. 3 and Feb. 17, Aguilera played on her family's worst fears to extract more money.
Aguirre said she discovered on Feb. 19 that Aguilera never filed any paperwork with immigration officials.
"It's just horrible,” Aguirre said. “It's a horrible feeling because you lose your money, your savings, your trust. You feel ashamed because you think you did something wrong."
After hearing Aguirre’s story and others like her’s California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D - 80th District) is stepping in to help.
"It's absolutely devastating that people can prey on the most vulnerable in our society," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said she is pushing for legislation that would require lawyers and consultants offering services under pending federal immigration reform to follow common sense business practices. It would also provide more legal cover to immigrants who report such alleged crimes.
"You know, a lot of times things that immigrants do, the rest of us would say, 'Well, wait a minute, obviously wasn't that a red flag?’" said Gonzalez, who represents the district where Aguirre’s family lives and works. "My father use to keep cash in a shoebox under his bed because he didn't trust the bank, but he also didn't have the ability to bank in a normal way."
Gonzalez’s father is a legal United States resident.
On her website, California Attorney General Kamala Harris lists things to watch out for when selecting help with the immigration process.
- Obtain a contract from the consultant or attorney.
- Verify their license and accreditation on the state bar’s website.
- Always retain original documents.
On the her website, Harris also points out that new immigration rules have not yet been implemented and that federal immigration authorities have not started accepting applications yet.
“Beware of anyone who offers to help you submit an application or a request for any of these actions before they are available,” the website advises.
State and local law enforcement officials told NBC 7 Investigates fraud cases involving immigration services are rarely prosecuted because alleged victims fear coming forward.
San Diego Deputy District Attorney Gina Darvas said her office has a memorandum of understanding between Homeland Security Investigations and the DA's office, protecting immigrants who report alleged crimes.
"When a victim comes forward to report this crime, if they are undocumented, they will not end up in deportation proceedings as a result," said Darvas.
Despite that understanding, Darvas says her office only prosecutes about four cases of immigration fraud a year.
Experts also said to avoid paying for services, like legal advice, up front.
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