One of the biggest traps undocumented immigrants fall into is the advice of "faux" attorneys. They pretend to know the ins-and-outs of immigration law and often scam victims of thousands of dollars.
For Veronica Avila Zavala, it seemed like an easy way out of a bad situation.
Her husband had been arrested and placed in deportation proceedings, and a friend from church, Maricela Jimenez Mandujano, said she knew of a good attorney who might be able to help. Avila Zavala scrounged up what she could, collecting $14,000 to pay for her husband's release.
A year later, her husband's still in jail, and her money is gone.
Avila Zavala's plight isn't that uncommon. Texas leads the country in litigation against attorney impersonators, who attract clients by hiring impersonators to vouch for them, steal vital documents and abscond with victims' cash.
Teresa Farfan says these impersonators are charismatic. She works in Attorney General Greg Abbot's office and says she's seen hundreds of cases similar to Avila Zavala's. She says the impersonators often use that charisma to prey on a victim — luring them into trusting them not only with their cases, but with irreplaceable documentation.
"They get acquainted with the potential victim and make them believe they are their friends. Sometimes they go to churches and they make presentations," she says.
While many often disappear after commiting the crime, Maricela Jimenez-Mandujano, Zavala Avila's referrer, has not. In fact, Veronica Avila Zavala is constantly in touch with her, asking for her money back. Jimenez-Mandujano says Avila could call the law-firm directly. She said that's where the documents are.
But after repeated attempts, the phone was never picked-up. Avila Zavala says, as it turns out, the law firm doesn't even exist. Texas Legal Aid, a non-profit assisting Avila Zavala with her case, filed Avila Zavala's case small-claims court last December.
After months of not hearing from the court, Avila finally had her day in court on May 30, only to have the case postponed after Jimenez-Mandujano filed for an extension. But when Avila Zavala finally presented her case, Judge Gonzalez awarded her $6,900 out of the $14,000 she says Jimenez-Mandujano owes her.
Immigration lawyer Paul Parsons says there are laws to punish this crime, but they lack the teeth to fully prosecute impersonators.
"Non-lawyers who pretend that they have legal expertise cannot be disciplined or sanctioned, they don't have a license to loose," Parsons says. "They don't have legal malpractice insurance."
They cannot even be disposed of their properties because the law protects a person's homestead and vehicle and a person's tools of the trade, he adds.
So, despite a ruling in her favor, she may never get her money back.
And now she's planning on leaving the country. Once her husband is deported, she hopes to have the money to take her kids back to Mexico too.