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Sounds of the Border

The Phillips and Phillips Law Office finds easy listeners and fast money on Spanish radio.

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Jorge Gonzalez lies awake nights in a cramped, rented trailer in Great Bend, Kansas. He thinks about his three children, imagines them sleeping peacefully almost a hundred miles away in Newton, in an old house that was crumbling when he bought it cheap. Gonzalez fixed up the house himself, reshingling the roof, ripping off the old siding, putting in new floors. For years, he had worked at an IBP Inc. slaughterhouse, eviscerating cows for not much more than minimum wage, saving and scraping together money so his children could grow up in a house. For three years now, he has been away from his family, traveling all over Kansas to do hard labor -- roofing jobs for $10 an hour. It is grueling work, so Gonzalez needs his rest.

But sleep won't come. Night after night, he imagines the same scenario: Uniformed immigration officials show up at his door. They know he's in the country illegally and working without a permit. They handcuff him and haul him off to jail, then put him on a bus bound for the border.

Legal residency and a work permit would let the 42-year-old Gonzalez sleep peacefully (and use his real name for this story). When a friend told him about Alicia Morales, he thought maybe she was the answer. The friend said Morales was an attorney who could help him get his papers quickly and for very little money -- something that was important. On one income, the Gonzalez family hadn't been able to save much.

Gonzalez made an appointment for 6:30 p.m. on February 2, and he took his wife and children to the Wichita office of Phillips and Phillips, a law firm owned by Alicia Morales' husband. The Gonzalezes didn't find out until months later that Morales, who met with them, is not an attorney.

Gonzales' wife, Rosa, remembers that the family sat in the waiting room, crowded in with other families and fussing children, for three hours, until Morales finally arrived at the firm to meet with them at 9:30 p.m. An attractive woman in her forties, Morales was fluent in Spanish and had a crisp, easy way of putting the Gonzalezes, who don't speak much English, at ease.

Gonzalez says Morales told him that for $140 in cash, he could get protection under a general amnesty law. He handed over the money and received a handwritten receipt signed by Morales in scrawling, unintelligible letters. She also gave him a typed two-page "legalization questionnaire" with seven questions. The questions made reference to an amnesty law passed by the U.S. Congress in 1986 (a law that's now defunct) and asked whether the applicant had filed for legalization under that law, whether the applicant had visited INS and, if so, what happened on each visit. Gonzalez says Morales told him to overnight the form to the Legalization Claims division of the INS in Washington, D.C. Gonzalez did so, keeping his post office receipt.

By April, when he had received no reply from the INS, Gonzalez decided to take his copies of the form and receipts to a respected Wichita immigration attorney, Sandrine Lisk. On her next visit to the INS District Office near Kansas City International airport (the office serves western Missouri and eastern Kansas and is one of 33 such offices in the country), Lisk showed the form to a supervisor.

The form was so rarely used that even the supervisor did not recognize it. In fact, in order to benefit from filling out the form, an immigrant had to be party (before October 1, 2000) to one of three specific class-action lawsuits that had been filed in 1993, all charging that certain immigrants were unfairly denied amnesty under the 1986 provision. Gonzalez had never participated in that suit. For handing him the useless form and a few minutes of her time, Morales pocketed fourteen hours' worth of Gonzalez's salary.

The questionable document made Gonzalez even more anxious. He had sent the form directly to INS, with his name, address, birth date and alien registration number. On the form, he had admitted to being in the country illegally. He was now even more worried about getting deported.

"It's ugly what they did," Gonzalez says darkly. "I'm here in this country, working all the time, paying my bills, paying taxes, trying to live my life without any trouble, and these people don't care. All they care about is taking advantage of people so they can make a buck in ten minutes." In Wichita, the Phillips and Phillips law firm has drawn in clients through advertisements on Spanish radio. Now the firm, which also has branch offices in Liberal and Garden City, has opened up a new location at 535 Central Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas.

James Phillips Jr., Morales' husband, tells the Pitch he is the only attorney for three of the firm's four offices, and he races around the state meeting with clients in Wichita, Liberal, Garden City and Kansas City, Kansas. Phillips has a house in Wichita and a house in Moscow (near Liberal) and owns an apartment above the law firm's Kansas City, Kansas office.

One attorney, Carol Cline, works three nights a week and on weekends at the Kansas City, Kansas, office. Cline is a high school Spanish teacher in Oskaloosa, Kansas, who graduated from law school in 1999, specializing in education law. She says she plans to quit teaching in a few weeks to work full time at Phillips and Phillips.

When Phillips isn't in a particular office (and when Cline isn't staffing the KCK office), he says business is handled by secretaries, assistants, a law student and his "wife's mother-in-law."

Most of the time, the Kansas City, Kansas office is run by Irene Cardoza, a secretary in her twenties who sees clients all day long with little or no supervision and still has time to drum up business through a Wednesday-morning radio show on KUPN 1480, a local Spanish radio station known as "La Zeta" (the letter Z). The station caters to the more than 100,000 Latinos in the metro area.

The lively sounds of La Zeta play in little Mexican restaurants in the northeast, in neighborhood centers on the city's west side and at parks, amid the shouting at late-afternoon soccer games where sweatshirts on the ground serve as goals. Thrown in among the dedications of a maudlin love song by Pepe Aguilar or a jumpy cumbia by Los Angeles Azules are ads for rock-bottom prices on DVD players and sneakers, commercials for real estate agents, dentists, used-car dealers and tax preparers who speak Spanish, and announcements for Mexican dances at the Rainbow Center on Kansas Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas. The morning show, from 6 to 11 a.m with Maria Del Pilar and Rico Ricon, offers "music, interviews, news and mucho, mucho mas!"

Included in that "mucho, mucho mas" is Irene Cardoza's program.

Anonymous immigrants, some without much more than a third- or fourth-grade education, call in to tell Cardoza their stories and ask her how the immigration laws apply to their unique situations. The callers' voices aren't heard on the air, but Del Pilar summarizes their situations and, based on those few sentences, Cardoza tells them what legal action to take.

Del Pilar: "Now we're going to talk about the fear some people have about going to the immigration office to check on their status."

Cardoza: "Yeah, some people are afraid that immigration will be taking down their names and that kind of thing and they will get in trouble. Don't worry about that. Just go and ask -- it can't hurt. If one door closes, another will open, so don't lose hope."

Del Pilar: "We have a call here from a señora who tells us that she married a U.S. citizen and has two daughters from a previous marriage. And she wants to know if she can apply -- she has her residency -- if she can apply for the girls' residency."

Cardoza: "Oh, it would be much easier for him, as a citizen, to apply for the girls because as soon as the couple married, the girls became his stepchildren and he can fix their status legally. This is the moment to take advantage of this law to apply for them while they're minors and don't have to pay a $1,000 fine."

Del Pilar: "Okay, we have a girl calling us who was married in Mexico, and her husband has been a legal U.S. resident for three years. She wants to know if he can apply for her to get residency now or if they have to wait until he's a citizen."

Cardoza: "No, no, no. Take advantage of this law. It's a one-time-only thing. Don't wait until he's a citizen."

Masked as a regular interview show about changes in immigration laws, the program is really a paid advertisement for the Phillips and Phillips law firm. For about $700 a month, the firm lures a multitude of local clients who heard about it on La Zeta.

The problem is, Cardoza is not qualified to give legal advice. Yet she dispenses it with a grandiose breeziness that sucks in the most vulnerable of immigrants.

The law Cardoza tells listeners to "take advantage of" is not a new law but a change to current immigration law that the U.S. Congress passed in December as the Legal Immigration and Family Equity Act. The change gave illegal immigrants who were in the United States when it was passed until April 30 to file for residency. If applicants met the deadline, then the INS permitted them to pay a $1,000 fine and stay in the country during the three- to ten-year period in which their paperwork was being processed. Normally the applicants must wait out the proceedings in their native countries, often enduring financial hardships and long separations from their families.

As a result of the "one-time-only" opportunity, immigrants all over Kansas City scrambled to file their applications before the end of April. Immigration lawyers worked from dawn until late in the evening and on weekends, their waiting rooms filled with families who wanted to legalize their status. (Immigration attorneys are hoping the deadline will be amended to give their clients more time.) But the law was complicated, and not everyone was eligible to apply for residency -- and applying when you weren't eligible was the equivalent of turning yourself in. It was a sure way to get sent straight into deportation proceedings.

Adding to the crowded waiting rooms were clients who came asking for help after visiting -- and paying -- the Phillips and Phillips law firm to file their paperwork and represent them. Immigration attorneys across Kansas say they've seen many clients who clearly were ineligible but had been encouraged by Phillips and Phillips to file for residency.

Kansas City, Kansas, immigration attorney Ted Garcia says his office has received many calls from immigrants who have consulted with Phillips and Phillips. He has turned away many others because he was sure he couldn't help them.

Garcia grew up in Strawberry Hill, the child of Mexican parents who were in the country illegally. (He was able to legalize his own status under the 1986 amnesty law.) Having seen his parents work sixteen- or eighteen-hour days in restaurants for $1.50 an hour, he grew livid when he heard stories about exploited immigrants.

"This offends me not only as an immigration lawyer but as a Latino," Garcia says. "What these people are not telling their clients is that by filing these applications for cancellation of deportation, they're subjecting them to arrest. That's what's going on here."

About a month ago, Garcia heard Cardoza on the radio giving out incorrect dates and information about who would be eligible for a new program that allows El Salvadorans to stay temporarily in the United States.

"It was just wrong. Completely wrong. One hundred percent wrong. I couldn't believe my ears," Garcia says. "I was thinking, 'My goodness, this woman has no clue what she's doing.'"

Not only is Cardoza dispensing legal advice, but she's also going a step further and telling people that "everything's going to be okay." She makes such blanket statements even though each case is different and in some cases almost no hope exists that the immigrant will be able to legalize.

On Cardoza's advice, a listener in the midst of deportation proceedings might think it was a good idea to go to the INS Kansas City District Office to check his status. At that point, however, immigration officials could decide to hold him.

Garcia says that an immigrant in the middle of deportation proceedings could be removed from the country immediately. "[Cardoza's] being reckless. If I heard a lawyer say that, I'd be ashamed to be part of the profession. You have to have the common sense to realize that some of these people are going to take every word you say literally. They assume that because you're on a show that you know what you're talking about, and, especially the uneducated people, they're really going to take what you say to heart." On the radio, Irene Cardoza calls herself a paralegal. She tells listeners that if they don't know how to file their papers with the INS, they should find somebody who has experience -- like the Phillips and Phillips law firm. "For me, because I've been doing it for a long time, it's simple -- and very quick. For people who haven't done it, you need to be very, very careful."

Experienced immigration attorneys throughout Kansas say they have seen dozens of clients who tell them that James S. Phillips Jr.'s wife, Alicia Morales, also has tried to pass herself off as an attorney.

And Alicia Morales has had legal troubles of her own.

In 1994, James S. Phillips Jr. represented Morales, who then was his girlfriend, in a civil suit in Wichita. In that case, a Mexican cleaning woman, who spoke no English, accused Morales of conning her out of more than $7,000.

Morales, who was working for a nonprofit organization, had served as the woman's translator during a workers' compensation proceeding. Morales then told the woman that she needed to pay $7,650 in taxes on the $56,000 settlement she had been awarded. The woman wrote out a cashier's check payable to Morales, then had second thoughts. After realizing she had been tricked, she sued Morales to retrieve the money. On the stand, Morales claimed the payment had been for translation services, but the director of the nonprofit organization said the services should have been free. It took the jury half an hour to decide that Morales had defrauded the woman -- and jurors asked whether they could award punitive damages too.

The woman's lawyer, Dennis Wetta, says he's still after Morales to collect the money she owes but that his client hasn't seen "dime one." Morales tells him she doesn't have any money, he says.

(As soon as the fraud case became public, Morales dropped efforts to run as a Democrat for the Kansas House of Representatives. But in 1998, Phillips, by then her husband, ran against Republican Congressman Jerry Moran and lost; Phillips also had lost a 1992 race for district court judge in Sedgwick County.)

Since then, both husband and wife have turned their attention to spreading their law practice into all corners of Kansas. They have contacted Catholic churches with Latino ministries, offering to come and present forums about changes in the immigration laws.

And lately, Alicia Morales' sister, Gloria Morales-Hurd, whose business card says she is a translator and "people's advocate" for the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri, has been attending church services in Missouri and handing out her own business cards to drum up business for "Alicia Phillips."

"[Alicia Morales] acted like she knew what she was talking about. She said she's a lawyer," says one U.S.-born woman in Sedalia, Missouri, whose Mexican husband of six months is here illegally. The woman says Morales told them that for a fee of more than $1,000 she could get the husband's work permit and residency in just one day -- it was obviously a ridiculous promise.

Social service agencies have been racking up complaints about Phillips and Phillips as well.

El Centro, a Kansas City, Kansas, organization dedicated to helping poor people, has been a refuge for some undocumented immigrants who say they have been misled by the law firm. El Centro's assistant director, Connie Flores, says several clients have come to the center in recent months, upset because they paid hundreds of dollars to Phillips and Phillips and were led to believe that they could become legal U.S. residents.

In February, El Centro responded by sponsoring a forum so immigrants could find out whether they were eligible to apply for residency. More than 300 people showed up, and organizers handed out a flier using a Spanish proverb to warn them about scam artists: "A ráo revuelto, ganancia de pescadores" -- it is good fishing in troubled waters.

The back of the flier listed ten reputable immigration lawyers and some social service agencies. The Phillips and Phillips law firm was not on that list.

"These are the honest immigration lawyers. Go to one of these," one of the speakers told the audience.

Cardoza and Morales were in the audience. On her radio show the next week, Cardoza told listeners that the forum was good but that "those aren't the only lawyers in town."

The Mexican-American Ministries, which operates in Garden City and Dodge City, Kansas, draws in immigrants who need cheap help -- the center asks for a $30 donation -- filling out applications for visas and work permits. Social workers there also hear stories of people who say Phillips and Phillips took advantage of them.

"It's been just really heartbreaking, all the money that they have taken," says Martha Mendoza, who works with immigrants at the center in Dodge City. "It's even worse when people have to borrow money from their relatives or friends, and they're so excited because [representatives of the law firm] are promising them things and people think, 'Wow, this is the opportunity.' It's so sad because it's just playing with people's emotions."

Horacio Velasquez wasted three years waiting for help from Phillips and Phillips. He found out about Phillips and Phillips through a friend who'd heard an ad on Wichita's Spanish radio station.

"They say on the radio that Alicia Morales can help you with your INS papers and that she is going to do the best for you," Velasquez says.

Velasquez, who moved to Wichita from Sinaloa, Mexico, when he was fifteen, had been working illegally for years when he decided to try for residency. He was tired of living in fear that he would get caught by an immigration officer -- especially since he was married with two little boys and couldn't stand the idea of his family being torn apart. In 1996, he went to Phillips and Phillips and talked with Morales, who told him it would be no problem to get a work permit and legal residency.

He paid her $1,000 to cover INS fines for entering the country illegally, plus more than $300 in attorney's and application fees. He never doubted Morales' honesty.

"She talks to you real nice, and you believe what she says," Velasquez admits.

Eager to get his work permit, he stopped by the Phillips and Phillips offices every two weeks to ask Morales how his applications were progressing.

"She kept saying [we had to] wait and wait and wait. She was telling me, 'You have to be patient because INS works very, very slow and they go by number. It's gonna take a while.' And she'd give me a date. And I'd go in on that date and she'd dial a [telephone] number in front of me and she'd put, like, a speaker phone, and the INS operator would talk and say we advanced so many numbers. I was never suspicious because she called right in front of me. I thought she was for real."

In the meantime, Velasquez says, Morales told him that if he ever got picked up by INS, the firm could come get him out of jail since he was in the process of applying for residency. "Just call me," Morales told him.

In early 1999, Velasquez got into trouble with the Wichita police. His wife's cousins -- suspected drug dealers -- were staying in their home, and police showed up one day with a search warrant. They didn't find drugs, but they did find a .22 rifle Velasquez had bought from a pawn shop. "This is not such a good neighborhood," he explains.

Police jailed Velasquez for unlawful possession of a firearm, and the INS soon discovered he was in the country illegally. The agency placed a "hold" on him so he could not be released from custody. By this time, three years had passed since his first visit to Phillips and Phillips -- but he remembered Morales' offer to help get him out of jail. He asked his father to visit Morales and try to get help.

Velasquez waited for a month. Help never came.

"When I was in jail, I saw a lot of guys that was waiting for them, for Phillips and Phillips to show up and get them out, and they never showed up for them, either. My dad said the secretary kept saying [Morales] was out of town or too busy to come."

That's when Velasquez asked his sister-in-law, Carmen Velasquez, to visit Phillips and Phillips and get his money back so he could hire a new lawyer. He knew his sister-in-law was smart and persistent and would not be swayed by Morales' charm.

Carmen Velasquez was surprised to see the firm housed in a "beat-up building." She stepped into an office with worn, dirty carpet and found Alicia Morales surrounded by stacks of papers. The appearance of the office gave Velasquez a bad feeling. She explained the situation and waited while Morales called the INS, and she heard Morales tell officers that Horacio Velasquez's father (the person who had petitioned for his residency) was a citizen -- a lie. He was a permanent legal resident, which Velasquez says she told Morales just before the call.

"He was already in trouble," Velasquez says. "He didn't need someone lying for him." As soon as the phone call ended, Carmen Velasquez demanded her brother-in-law's money back. She had forgotten to bring his receipts, but she assumed the firm would have an easily accessible record of how much he had paid. Morales started rifling through disorganized old records but couldn't find anything, so Velasquez left to get the receipts and returned a few hours later.

"When she got out his file, it just looked a wreck," Velasquez remembers. "There was never a contract. It just had little sticky notes all over the file, and she could not find anything." But the big shock came after Velasquez took the file home.

"When I looked in the file, all the originals were in there, all the applications. She had never submitted anything to INS. Here three years had passed, and she just kept the money for the fine and never did anything for him."

Morales finally made out a check for $1,270, which she told Velasquez she had been holding in a "trust fund." But when Velasquez sent her husband to deposit the check, bankers told him there weren't enough funds to cover it. Carmen Velasquez went back to Phillips and Phillips and confronted Morales. Looking surprised, Morales called the bank and transferred funds into the account.

Phillips will not address individual clients' situations. However, he says, "Sometimes if a client is in jail, that can cause delays."

Velasquez got her brother-in-law a new lawyer -- Angela Ferguson, the regional head of the American Immigration Lawyers Association -- who has an office in Independence. Ferguson helped Velasquez file a complaint against Phillips and Phillips with the Kansas Bar Association.

In February 2000, Broc E. Whitehead, chairman of the Bar Association's Ethics and Grievance Committee, interviewed Carmen and Horacio Velasquez and Horacio's sister Lorena Velasquez, who also had used Phillips and Phillips. Whitehead then sent a letter to James S. Phillips Jr. summarizing the complaints against him, which included failure to obtain a work permit and permanent residency status for Horacio Velasquez; failure to get Velasquez out of jail after a federal drug case against him was dismissed in April 1999; inability of the firm's reimbursement check for INS fees to immediately clear; and a lack of diligence in pursuing the client's work permit and residency status.

Further, Whitehead wrote, "if Ms. Morales is still meeting with clients of your law firm, please contact me immediately to discuss her qualifications and the capacity in which your law firm engages her services." The letter also asked that Phillips consent to a review of the law firm's trust accounts.

On April 10, 2000, Phillips sent Whitehead a five-page response to the Velasquezes' complaints. Phillips blamed the delays on the INS assigning priority dates to certain categories of immigrants, and he wrote that his wife is an "unpaid volunteer" who is able to speak Spanish with non-English-speaking clients. "My wife has never referred to herself as an attorney. She usually states that she is the wife of an attorney or a paralegal." Morales was a law student, Phillips wrote. He denied that his firm's check initially bounced and wrote that "Carmen Velasquez was apparently upset because the bank and ourselves required her to provide written authorization from Horacio before cashing the refund check."

Whitehead did not return calls from the Pitch, but a spokesman for the bar association says complaints are kept confidential unless they result in disciplinary action against an attorney -- and since Morales isn't an attorney, no disciplinary action could have been taken against her.

Phillips says his wife "knows all about immigration law" and is a part-time law student who has been taking classes at President's College School of Law, a six-year-old unaccredited law school with six full-time faculty members. "She doesn't tell people she's an attorney. In fact she makes it very clear she's not an attorney, and [the clients] sign a contract that makes it clear who the lawyers are," Phillips says.

During one of the Pitch's visits to the firm's local office, Irene Cardoza first said she did not want to talk about her radio show without her lawyer present. Then she reluctantly said she had heard that some immigration lawyers complained that she gave out misinformation over the air.

"I don't think I say wrong information," she said. "I even called immigration and told them, 'Listen to me on the air, and if I say wrong information, let me know.'"

She said she was a paralegal and that she was going back to school for a law degree. When pressed, she said she was not actually taking classes. "I need to go to KU to register and start taking classes again," she said.

Ted Garcia wishes La Zeta would take Cardoza's show off the air. El Centro's Connie Flores met with the station's director, Kristi Goodloe, and voiced her concerns about the program, but it is still airing.

Goodloe says that the radio station makes it clear to viewers that Cardoza's show is a paid advertisement.

"We air many disclaimers, and we also welcome any other immigration attorneys who want to advertise with us," Goodloe says. She says her meeting with El Centro's assistant director was not specifically about Cardoza's show but about how the station could better serve its listeners by becoming more involved in the community. "Our goal is really to help the community," Goodloe says.

But disclaimers won't stop new immigrants from believing Cardoza's promises.

And for every immigrant who gets deported, one more arrives with the hope of joining family, finding work or buying a home in which to raise a family. Before long, chances are the new immigrant will tune in to La Zeta, where he'll hear about Phillips and Phillips. Cardoza will tell him not to worry, that everything will be okay. And if the newcomer has any doubts or questions, he should just come on down to "la oficina de Irene."

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