In a preliminary move, a judge ruled today that an immigration specialist in the Mission District will have to stop giving advice to his clients after being sued by the city for fraud and impersonating an attorney.
Leo Lacayo, an immigration and tax specialist with offices at 3330 Mission St. near 29th Street, is being sued by City Attorney Dennis Herrera for giving legal advice without a law degree. The suit, among other allegations, also states that Lacayo charges clients “thousands of dollars” for “shoddy services,” and that immigration forms are often filled out so improperly that they “even put clients at risk of deportation.”
Lacayo dismissed the claims in the suit and accused the city attorney of suing him because he supports Donald Trump’s candidacy for president. Surrounded by Republican paraphernalia in his office, Lacayo said the city’s witnesses are lying.
On Tuesday, Judge Harold Kahn ignored those allegations and ruled in San Francisco Superior Court that the city would likely prevail in its suit and that Lacayo must cease immigration consulting until he is properly registered with the state.
“Leonardo Lacayo shall not for compensation engage in the business of or act in the capacity of an immigration consultant” without first passing a background check, filing a state form, and putting up $100,000 in a bond, the judge wrote in granting the preliminary injunction.
He also said Lacayo was prohibited from providing legal advice outside the scope of immigration consulting and would have to prominently display the fact that he is not an attorney, among other requirements.
Lacayo said the city’s suit was weak. Of more than 190,000 clients Lacayo has had in some three decades working with immigrants, the city has only been able to find two who allege he misrepresented himself, he said.
“I never tell people I’m an attorney because I’m not,” he said. “According to them I told one to two people I’m a lawyer in 33 years? What kind of bullshit is that?”
“The only reason they’re after me is I support Donald Trump,” he added.
The lawsuit brought by the city attorney alleges that Lacayo not only gave legal advice without a law degree, but also failed to provide documents in a client’s native language and even threatened to call the police on one client who demanded a copy of her son’s file.
Six clients have been deposed by the Office of the City Attorney so far in the case, two of whom say Lacayo stated he was a lawyer, or “abogado de inmigracion,” an immigration lawyer. The other four did not say Lacayo impersonated an attorney, but said they assumed Lacayo was a lawyer because he offered immigration advice and never explained that he was not a lawyer.
As a prominent Latino surrogate for Trump, Lacayo said he is often on television advertising for the presidential candidate. This, he said, bothers his opponents in City Hall. Herrera is singling him out of dozens of other immigration consultants in the city, he said.
“There’s over 100 consultants in this city. None of them are in compliance with the state code, and some of them advertise in Spanish radio as lawyers!” Lacayo said, saying he relies on word of mouth for his clients.
At a press conference outside the Superior Court at 400 McAllister St. on Tuesday morning, representatives from La Raza Centro Legal, a non-profit legal services organization in the Mission District, said Lacayo had been committing fraud for decades.
“We’re here standing against the fraud that Mr. Lacayo has perpetrated against the immigrant community,” said Maria Victoria Castro, the executive director of La Raza. Surrounded by a dozen women outside the courthouse, Castro said Lacayo was part of a long tradition of sham consultants who target immigrants.
“San Francisco has a long history of fraud against our immigrant community,” she said.
“This is an instance of a predatory notario,” said Amanda Alvarado Ford, an immigration lawyer with La Raza, using the Spanish term for an immigration consultant.
La Raza was contacted two years ago by an undocumented woman from El Salvador who had gone to Lacayo seeking asylum after a domestic violence incident, Alvarado Ford said. Lacayo agreed to help the woman and filed paperwork, she said, despite there being no route to asylum for domestic violence survivors at the time.
Taking the woman’s money without any real path to citizenship was fraudulent, she said. Lacayo’s actions made the woman’s information accessible and made it more likely she would be targeted for deportation, she said.
“Was it fraud? Absolutely,” said Alvarado Ford. “He took more than $1,000 from my client and put her at real risk of deportation.”
The law eventually changed some eight months after the woman approached Lacayo, and she was able to get a visa on her own. The woman — who wished to remain anonymous but is named in the suit — is one of six witnesses deposed by the city attorney in the case against Lacayo.
Lacayo, for his part, said the woman was “lying.” The woman wants money, he said, and would look to settle with him before going to trial.
As to the charge that he gives legal advice without a law degree or consultation certificate, he said the point is moot. He does not give such advice, he said.
“How many times have you been in this office?” he said. “Has anyone ever told you I’m a lawyer?”
“Of course they’re making it up,” he added.