George Cameron had solicited clients and argued before immigration judges in Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. But he had no law license, nor had he completed law school. Credit: Courtesy of the Delaware County district attorney

Christopher Bailey needed to hire an immigration lawyer, but he didn’t have the luxury of comparison shopping.

The Jamaican-born cook was in immigration detention after overstaying his tourist visa, and he wanted to fight to stay with his family in the United States. While Bailey was locked up, his mother paid $8,000 to George Cameron, a man she knew had taken immigration cases for people in Philadelphia’s Jamaican community.

Cameron helped Bailey get out of detention and represented him in his first hearing before an immigration judge. After that hearing, Cameron told Bailey not to return to court.

Cameron promised he’d handle Bailey’s case without him. Bailey decided to take his attorney’s advice. His court date came, and he stayed home.

“You have a lawyer, you’re supposed to trust your lawyer, right?” he said.

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What Bailey didn’t know – and what a federal jury heard at a trial earlier this year – was that Cameron also failed to show up for the hearing. Bailey was ordered deported in absentia; he got his deportation notice in the mail, and he said he never saw Cameron again.

Last year, Bailey’s mother sent him a news story that explained it: Cameron wasn’t a lawyer after all.

For at least 25 years, Cameron had solicited clients and argued before immigration judges in Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. But he had no law license, nor had he completed law school. His supposed firm, Cameron, Cameron and Associates, had no associates. And the three Philadelphia-area offices he advertised were, in fact, his home, his girlfriend’s home and a post office downtown.

Worse, Cameron had been convicted twice in Pennsylvania for pretending to be a lawyer. But he kept taking clients such as Bailey, until federal authorities raided his home in March 2015. In February, he was convicted yet again, after jurors heard tape of Cameron stumbling through immigration hearings and, in Bailey’s case, failing to appear. At his sentencing scheduled for July, he faces decades in federal prison.

But Bailey, whose tale of misfortune helped convict Cameron, said investigators never contacted him directly. As soon as he heard the charges against Cameron, he wanted to make a report. But, he said, “I don’t know where to go to start the complaint.”

Bailey is still in the country, working two jobs to raise money to pay a new lawyer to reopen his case. Recouping the $8,000 his mother paid Cameron would help, but he has no idea how to make that happen.

“Everything comes down on me,” he said. “I want to open up my case. But I can’t because of money issues.”

Fraud in immigration law is an old problem, and the fight to stop it is decades old, too. Bailey’s case illustrates one of the greatest challenges: Fraud victims don’t know where to report the crime. That makes it hard to catch fraudsters and hard to track the scope of the problem.

“Lawyers and community organizations have known about this issue – ‘notario’ scams and immigration fraud – for a very long time,” said Juan Manuel Pedroza, who teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “The issue was: Is there a way we can figure out where it’s happening and where the prevalence is really high? We’re not there yet.”

Pedroza recently completed his doctoral work at Stanford University, and his dissertation explored the huge variance in the distribution of immigration law fraud complaints to the Federal Trade Commission. Since 2011, the federal agency has maintained a category for tips about immigration law fraud. Pedroza filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all 2,300 complaints from 2011 to 2014, then looked for trends in the geographical distribution.

One takeaway from his research: Counties with stronger support networks for immigrants produced more legal fraud complaints to the FTC.

That doesn’t mean there’s more fraud in those places, Pedroza said. Across the country, there are far more people being defrauded than people filing a complaint, as Bailey’s case illustrates. In places with strong support networks, immigrants are more likely to know how to make a complaint and more willing to trust the government to handle their cases.

“The sense that you can go to a protective arm of the government and your information won’t get shared” with immigration authorities, Pedroza said, “that sell is easier in San Francisco, Colorado or Los Angeles.”

Pedroza singled out two counties where the opposite is true: Madera County, California, and Cameron County, Texas, both have large immigrant populations but sent almost no fraud complaints to the FTC.

Anne Schaufele, an attorney with Project END at the Washington-based nonprofit Ayuda, helps victims file fraud reports with the FTC as well as with local agencies. Police and local prosecutors usually are more willing to take action on the most common complaints. Federal prosecutors, she said, focus on long-running, multistate operations such as Cameron’s fraudulent law practice.

“They’re looking for big cases,” Schaufele said. “A lot of notario fraud happens small scale, so we see the same actor harming the community over lots of years.”

She said coming forward to report fraud, like other crime, comes with extra risks in the Trump era. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has access to the FTC’s complaint database, she said, so she advises people not to include personal information if they’re at risk for deportation.

In the past, Department of Homeland Security officials told ICE agents and prosecutors to weigh a person’s “status as a victim, witness or plaintiff in civil or criminal proceedings” when deciding who to pursue. Under President Donald Trump, though, everyone eligible for deportation is fair game.

That’s a big risk to take when the odds of catching the fraudster, let alone recouping the money paid, are so long.

“A lot of databases feel like black holes in practice,” Schaufele said, “because you see so little enforcement around these issues.”

Patrick Michels can be reached at pmichels@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter: @patrickmichels.

Patrick Michels is a reporter for Reveal, covering immigration. His coverage focuses on immigration courts and legal access, privatization in immigration enforcement, and the government's care for unaccompanied children. He contributed to Reveal's award-winning project on indigenous land rights disputes created by oil pipelines. Previously, he was a staff writer at the Texas Observer, where his work included an investigation into corruption at the Department of Homeland Security and how the state's broken guardianship system allowed elder abuse to go unchecked. Michels was a Livingston Award finalist for his investigation into the deadly armored car industry. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's degree in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, where his work focused on government contractors grappling with trauma and injuries from their time in Iraq. Michels is based in Austin, Texas.