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.

Ed Moreno, assistant director for domestic operations for the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, said the organizations wanted to make a statement against such schemes.

"We want to deliver a clear message that we will aggressively pursue and investigate visa fraud," Moreno said. "This case is particularly reprehensible as it involves a local law firm and two former government employees."

Sister Wagner said she was glad to hear that the government was investigating Alcala's firm but was concerned that those who received visas may be arrested and deported, even though they may have been deceived in the alleged document scheme.

Tolman said that the current focus of the investigation is on the listed defendants, namely the firm and its employees, though they will eventually investigate the businesses and foreign workers involved as well. Investigators said Tuesday they currently believe the majority of the businesses involved were innocent.

Salt Lake immigration attorney Lance Starr was a one-time employee of Alcala. He worked on criminal and deportation cases at the firm for about seven months in 2006 and said Tuesday that it wasn't until after he left the firm that he discovered what he said appeared to be deceptive conduct by his former employer.

Starr said he reviewed applications processed by Alcala's office for two people seeking resident alien status in the United States. The applications were rejected, but Starr discovered several documents that he says indicated the two applicants had been employed by a Mexican company during a certain time period.

Starr said he knew the information was incorrect, and believes it was included by Alcala, not by the applicants. Starr brought the matter to Tolman and held a series of meetings with the prosecutor over the course of a year. That information is likely what instigated the investigation of Alcala, but a spokeswoman from Tolman's office declined to confirm that.

Prosecutors claim the firm was able to obtain more than 5,000 visas. Tolman said it was possible some of those visas were obtained legally, though they believe "the majority" were obtained illegally. He said it is "safe to say" the law firm made "thousands of dollars" off of the scheme.

Five of the eight defendants have been arrested and their initial appearance will take place Wednesday at 10 a.m. in federal court.

e-mail: emorgan@desnews.com; araymond@desnews.com