Utah law firm indicted in case of visa fraud

Salt Lake immigration attorney faces federal charges for allegedly faking work passes

Published: Wednesday, July 29 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

A federal indictment brought Tuesday against a local immigration attorney and his associates came as no surprise to the community of people who work as advocates for Utah's immigrant population.

Sister Sharlet Wagner, director of the immigration department at Salt Lake's Holy Cross Ministries, said her office had contact with several people over the past couple of years who were given "poor" legal advice by James Alcala and his law firm.

"We've heard similar stories from people who have gone to Mr. Alcala for counsel and end up being victims," Sister Wagner said. "What I've seen from more than one client is that they see him, are told they can get visas, then directed to go to Mexico. … Once they're there, someone else tells them they will have to lie to get a visa to get back in the country."

The investigation into the law firm is "the largest employment visa fraud scheme in this state," said Paul Maldonado, deputy special agent in charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Office of Investigations.

After an 18-month investigation, Alcala's law firm at 1380 W. Indiana Ave. and eight individuals associated with it were charged Tuesday with alien smuggling and visa fraud.

U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman said investigators from his office, ICE, the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services are focusing on the law firm and its employees because he said they are the ones who abused their "position of trust" as law advisers by manipulating the visa system to obtain temporary work visas for illegal immigrant employees.

"The attorneys took advantage of their position and so the focus of this investigation is on the facilitators," he said.

Federal prosecutors say the Alcala Law Firm, which advertised itself specifically as an immigration law office, has been illegally obtaining H-2B work visas for various Utah companies in order to gain a profit.

Among other things, investigators allege that the firm encouraged people to return to Mexico and lie about their planned employment and time in the United States and obtained more visas than were necessary to build up a visa "pool," the indictment states.

The H-2B visas are meant for foreign workers not already living in the United States who want to come to the U.S. for a maximum of 10 months to perform manual labor jobs. The H-2B visa program requires that before a foreign worker can be granted a visa, the company seeking workers must advertise in a newspaper and post the position with the Department of Workforce Services.

If no U.S. citizens apply or qualify for the job, these employers can then seek foreign workers. Up to 66,000 of these visas are granted each year.

Owners of local landscaping, painting, roofing and steel businesses in Salt Lake, Utah and Davis counties approached the Alcala Law Firm in an effort to obtain visas for employees whom they had already employed, in an effort to legitimize the employment, prosecutors say.

Alcala, 41, the firm's principal attorney, and other employees then offered to help these companies using the H-2B visa program, despite the fact that these foreign employees were already in the country, the indictment states.

The firm employed two men who had formerly worked for U.S. immigration services and who, officials allege, used their experience to manipulate the system. Both Carlos Vorher, 43, a former agent for the U.S. Border Patrol, and Andres Acosta Parra, 31, who had worked as a visa assistant at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, were named in the indictment.

The involvement of men with such extensive knowledge of the system makes this case especially unique and "disturbing," said Pat Durkin, special agent in charge of the San Francisco Office of Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service.

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