The Ward Connection 

An Orem immigration attorney’s advice pushes undocumented clients deeper into the shadows.

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S. Austin Johnson is a calm, bespectacled man in a rumpled jacket, whose only nervous tick is occasionally pushing his fringe of hair back. A Utah immigration attorney, he moved offices four times in 2009. He says those moves were forced on him by difficult landlords and led in part to communication breakdowns with clients that resulted in two public reprimands by the Utah State Bar on March 24. However, critics in the Utah County Hispanic community, such as Provo-based LDS bishop Eliezer Coca, say Johnson’s office-moving is an attempt to hide from angry undocumented Hispanic clients who believe he cheated them.

Since 2005, Johnson has been reprimanded by the Utah State Bar four times. He was also put on a year’s probation for violating rules of professional conduct in 2006. The bar publishes its sanctions in the back of its bi-monthly magazine and on its website. Who beyond lawyers actually reads such knuckle-rapping is hard to say. Certainly, members of three undocumented Hispanic families who claim Johnson took their money in exchange for bad advice and false hope have never heard of the bar nor read its journal. If they had, perhaps they might have been spared the frustration their current attorney, Aaron Tarin, says they allegedly suffered at Johnson’s hands.

Tarin is chair of the Utah chapter of American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Unauthorized Practice of Law committee, which is dedicated to educating Hispanics about the perils of going to non-lawyers for legal advice. He believes Johnson is one of several immigration attorneys whose questionable practices drive already frightened undocumented Hispanics farther into the shadows. Immigration attorneys have to be candid with desperate clients who have “a year or two before they will be deported,” Tarin says, and whose cases are so hopeless they can’t be salvaged. Instead of spending what little money they have on lawyers willing to pursue cases that, Tarin argues, have run their course, they should be saving for the often hard struggle of life after deportation.

Johnson, now in his 50s, is a Utah native who studied economics at Brigham Young University and attended law school at George Washington University. He started as a personal-injury lawyer but, in 1998, began focusing on immigration law. He describes Tarin as someone who “throws mud on people” and questions what Tarin bills Johnson’s ex-clients. Tarin says he took them on pro-bono. Two of the three families, Johnson says, came to him so late, he was “very limited” in what he could do to help. “They were already in a hole.”

Bishop Coca first encountered Johnson, who is also LDS, at his talk on immigration issues that was organized by Coca’s stake president. Excited by Johnson’s claims that he could assist undocumented immigrants, Coca introduced him to two ward members.

One was “Jorge,” who requested his real name be withheld. After Jorge was picked up by police for driving under the influence, Salt Lake City immigration Judge Dustin Pead granted him a 90-day volunteer departure on Dec. 3, 2009. That meant if he left within 90 days for Mexico, he would be eligible after three years to apply to re-enter the United States. Should he outstay the 90 days, he would be deported and face a 10-year ban on travel to the United States.

Jorge says Johnson told him to effectively ignore Pead’s order and that for $3,000, he could secure him a temporary legal status. Johnson argues he suggested Jorge leave the country but nevertheless filed to reopen Jorge’s case, even though Johnson admits “it’s rare” for such cases to be granted.

Nevertheless, Johnson says, “I definitely wasn’t trying to take advantage of them.”

On the 89th day of Pead’s order, a desperate Jorge, unable to get ahold of Johnson despite constant phone calls and visits to his office, found out where he lived and went to his house with Coca. Johnson allegedly appeared at the door and waved a piece of paper that Jorge and Coca claim the attorney said gave Jorge six more months. Johnson, however, denies ever making that claim.

Eight days later, ICE officers came to Jorge’s house looking for him shortly after he had left for work, forcing Jorge and his family to live in hiding in Utah County.

Coca also recommended Johnson to “Antonio” [also a pseudonym]. Antonio is a married Nicaraguan with two children. In 2009, he was pulled off a bus with his family in Texas by local police while en route to Miami. With his tourist visa two years expired, Antonio was issued a deportation-hearing summons.

Johnson told Antonio’s wife that for $3,000, he could secure visas for the entire family by applying for political asylum. But the asylum application, Tarin says, was so weak it bordered on “the frivolous.”

Johnson twice told judges the family conceded they were illegal and thus deportable, so allegedly allowing the lawyer to pursue his questionable asylum application. While Johnson says that a scheduled hearing in 2011 shows there is hope for the family, Tarin says there’s little chance they will prevail.

“Carolina,” from El Salvador, hired Johnson after a friend in her Provo ward recommended him. A Salt Lake City immigration judge had denied her asylum and ordered her removed on March 11, after her appeal was dismissed. One attorney she went to said her case was hopeless. But a desperate Carolina believed Johnson when he told her she could re-apply for asylum if she paid him $3,500.

But instead of applying to Salt Lake City to have the case re-opened, Johnson sent a memo in support of asylum to Homeland Security in Houston. A presumably confused Houston asylum office director wrote back on July 29, pointing out Carolina “is still under [Salt Lake’s] court jurisdiction and would have to have the court reopen her case to apply with them.” Tarin shakes his head incredulously—“That’s basic immigration law 101.”

Johnson’s asylum memo not only demonstrated not only poor English but also failed to cite any legal case or statute, citing only a blog and a photographic Website, Johnson admits he had “help” from an assistant with the motion to reopen, and that the co-author “may have had weaknesses,” with regard to language.

Because Carolina could not get hold of Johnson, she went to Tarin. He told her an asylum case costs $8,000, and questioned whether Johnson could do the work for less than half of that, even assuming she was eligible.

Feeling betrayed by the legal profession, Carolina fled to Mexico with her 3-year-old daughter on a 80-day tourist visa rather than await deportation. She says she can’t return to the United States because her daughter’s father, whom she claims physically abused her, is suing her for kidnapping their child. But if she goes back to El Salvador, she is “very afraid” of the gang whose death threats forced her to flee in the first place.

“I don’t know what to do,” she says through tears on the phone.

Johnson admits Jorge and Carolina were “running out of time a little bit [when they came to him].” He adds, “I’m really trying to help them than take advantage of them.”

Coca’s anger at having brought “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” into his congregation refuses to diminish. “I heard his promises,” to people like Jorge and Antonio, he says. “He hasn’t done anything.”

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