MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Assuming some version of immigration reform becomes law, the nation will need a lot more immigration lawyers. There's already a shortage and that's not the only potential problem. As Iowa Public Radio's Sandhya Dirks reports, reform could also mean a lot more fraud.
SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: Immigrant activist Sandra Sanchez concedes the country might not be ready for immigration reform. She doesn't mean that in political terms, but in practical ones.
SANDRA SANCHEZ: We need to be prepared for the wave of millions of potential applicants that will be needing these legal services. And we will not have enough resources to serve them.
DIRKS: Even without reform, immigration lawyers like Amanda Bahena are struggling to meet the demand.
AMANDA BAHENA: (Foreign language spoken)
DIRKS: Bahena is meeting with a client at La Fiesta, a restaurant in the northwestern Iowa town of Sioux Center. On top of everything else, she says, she is cleaning up a mess made by a Nebraskan lawyer named Jerre Moreland, known to many as El Indio, The Indian. With his long, flowing white hair and elaborate cane, Moreland cut a fantastical figure.
BAHENA: Just a very unique-looking individual, kind of a wizard-like appearance to him.
DIRKS: And like a wizard, Bahena says, Moreland seemed to work magic, getting undocumented immigrants work permits. But, she says, his trick turned out to be just that. Those work permits weren't a path to citizenship. Instead, they paved the road to deportation. She says that's because Moreland offered clients political asylum, though most weren't even eligible.
She calls that fraud. And it started to get noticed. Clients abandoned him, the Nebraska Bar Association started asking questions. In October, Jerre Moreland died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Bahena says Moreland and lawyers like him prey on an immigrant's desperation.
BAHENA: It would be very, very easy to fleece a lot of people with very little problem. I mean, they are literally coming in and throwing money at you.
DIRKS: That's happening right now. Immigrants are coming into her office and saying, let me give you money; put me on the list. But reform hasn't passed and there is no list. Des Moines immigration lawyer Ann Naffier says some lawyers make money by stressing quantity over quality. In other words...
ANN NAFFIER: It's like gambling, because for a few people it will help them and then they go and tell all their friends, and everybody shows up and they want to sign up for the same program. And what happens often is that many of them end up in deportation proceedings. And usually, by that time, the out-of-state attorney has closed shop and moved elsewhere.
DIRKS: Naffier says if you fill out someone's immigration papers wrong, there aren't do-overs. So even after reform passes, it won't be like making a mistake on your taxes and having to pay more next year. It's making a mistake and being forced to leave the country. She says some attorneys get away with it because there aren't enough qualified immigration lawyers.
At the Methodist church in Ottumwa, a city in southeastern Iowa, the nonprofit group Justice For Our Neighbors is holding its monthly free immigration legal clinic. In the rec room, volunteers sit around eating pizza and drinking soda before the clinic begins. Elena Stuart comes here to interpret.
Despite the fact that she came to the United States as a child and is married to an American citizen, she lost any tangible proof of when she crossed the border, and that means she remains undocumented. She says her case is similar to many here - some lawyer just didn't do a good job, she says.
ELENA STUART: And they either never answer their phone calls, or their office were never open, or they just skipped town and they didn't give them back their copies of their paperwork.
DIRKS: Stuart knows what a work permit means to an immigrant. She tried to get hers, signing papers, getting fingerprinted...
STUART: And I asked the lady, what is that for? She says that's for your work permit. I'm sorry. She says, that's for your work permit. And I was so excited, and I just drove home so, so excited, and I was telling my husband. You know, we were making plans, you know, of everything that we were going to do together because I was going to be able to work and provide for my kids. And three weeks later, we get the denial letter.
DIRKS: The problem was, one of the many lawyers she had seen along the way lost that critical document. While Stuart hopes immigration reform will bring immigrants out of the shadows, she worries that the light will make them easier targets for fraud.
For NPR News, I'm Sandhya Dirks in Des Moines.