A state appeals court in San Francisco has upheld most of the grand theft convictions of a former immigration consultant from Santa Rosa who falsely promised undocumented Mexican immigrants he would help them become legal residents.
A three-judge Court of Appeal panel on Tuesday upheld the convictions of Ramon Rodriguez, 50, on eight counts of grand theft by false pretenses.
The panel also upheld a Sonoma County Superior Court order of restitution of a total of $22,000 to the victims–six individuals and two couples who paid Rodriguez that amount in fees.
“He recklessly and baselessly promised the victims legal residency without information that would justify a reasonable belief in the truth of that promise,” Justice Martin Jenkins wrote for the court.
None of the victims won political asylum or legal residency, all were placed in deportation proceedings, and many are now under deportation orders, the court said.
“In return for their investment, the defendant placed each of the victims on a path that led, with a high degree of certainty, to an order of deportation,” Jenkins wrote.
The panel overturned two other grand theft convictions, which carried an additional $4,625 in restitution, on the grounds that charges in the cases of those two clients were filed after a four-year deadline.
Rodriguez was convicted of the charges in a 2007 Superior Court trial and was sentenced the following year to four years in prison for each count, to be served concurrently.
His attorney in the appeal, Michael Willemsen, said that Rodriguez, a Mexican citizen, agreed to be deported to Mexico after serving two or three years of that sentence.
Willemsen said the ruling affects the amount of restitution, but not the now-completed sentence, since the prison terms on each count were concurrent.
The court said the victims were poorly educated, non-English-speaking Mexican citizens who had lived and worked in the United States for more than 10 years. Rodriguez recruited them through his tax preparation business and Spanish-language radio ads. They paid him fees ranging from $1,000 to $6,000, according to prosecutors.
Rodriguez advised the clients to seek legal residency through a process of first applying for political asylum and then, if asylum was denied, seeking cancellation of deportation on grounds of extreme hardship to a child who was a U.S. citizen.
But he failed to tell them they were unlikely to win either step and that his plan in fact carried “an extremely high risk of deportation” by placing the clients in the deportation proceedings system, the court said.
The panel noted that an immigration law expert testified at the trial that Mexican citizens rarely win applications for U.S. political asylum, except when they can show they suffered extreme domestic violence or sexual-orientation persecution in Mexico. People who lose asylum requests are automatically placed in deportation proceedings.
The expert also said cancellations of deportation on grounds of extreme hardship are rare and require proof of exceptional difficulty beyond the normal hardship of readjusting to life in a less developed country.
The panel rejected Rodriguez’s appeal claim that there was insufficient evidence he acted with criminal intent.
The court said he based his scant expertise on a single 1998 meeting with an immigration lawyer and an immigration handbook, failed to evaluate his clients’ individual situations, and ignored a 2002 warning from another immigration lawyer to whom he had referred some of his clients’ cases.
The attorney testified she told Rodriguez that “what he was doing was wrong and that he needed to stop and that he didn’t know the law.”
“In total, the record here reflects that the defendant employed a scheme whereby he made reckless promises to the victims that they would obtain legal residency without information that would justify a reasonable belief in the truth of those promises–i.e., that he acted with criminal intent,” Jenkins wrote.
Willemsen said Rodriguez didn’t intend to defraud his clients, but was working “in a complex area without the background he needed.”
He noted that there was testimony at Rodriguez’s trial that four other clients, including his wife, did obtain legal residency.
“He wasn’t trying to cheat people. He was trying to help them get their residency and green cards, but he probably should not have been in the business because it is complicated,” Willemsen said.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News