A lawyer’s weapon against farm worker complaints: Deportation

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As an attorney representing California Central Valley farmers and labor contractors who rely heavily on undocumented workers, Anthony Raimondo has become widely known for performing a sort of magic trick. He can sometimes make legal complaints against his clients – and the people who file them – disappear.

In at least seven cases where workers accused his clients of mistreatment, Raimondo asked immigration authorities if they would like to arrest the complainants.

And, then, presto: At least three cases against his clients apparently were derailed, and two complainants—both, Raimondo says, with criminal records– were deported.

Workers’ attorneys only “find out when their clients are already gone,” he once explained in an email to an official in Washington.

Along with fighting for farmers accused of cheating employees, Raimondo has defended labor contractors against accusations that they are responsible for crash deaths of workers transported under unsafe conditions. In the process, Raimondo has won the hearts of grateful clients and championed the idea that California overregulates business.

He also has made union organizers apoplectic. There is no way to know how many workers may have remained silent about abuses because they feared Raimondo’s tactics. “Pretty much everyone considers him a slime bucket,” said United Food and Commercial Workers organizer Pete Maturino. The organizer recalled having brought a worker to an arbitration hearing at Raimondo’s Fresno law office to contest a three-day suspension, only to discover that the worker was arrested and booted from the country by immigration agents waiting outside.

A federal appellate judge recently compared Raimondo to a serial killer. After reading some of his correspondence with immigration authorities, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Trott said, “You’ve got this guy, Raimondo, he’s kind of like a serial killer here, running around probably representing himself as ‘I can get rid of these cases by getting rid of the plaintiffs.’ That’s what he’s doing.” Trott speculated during oral argument in a case in which Raimondo is accused of illegally retaliating against an undocumented worker who had sued a client for underpaying him. “He’s got a freestanding relationship with [immigration police] to check out these people and get rid of them before the lawsuit [they’ve brought against his client] can even proceed.”

Even the State Legislature appears to have tried to rein him in. Until his practices came to light, the code of professional conduct for lawyers in California was silent on whether it would be unethical for a lawyer to report someone suing his client to law enforcement. The code said only that it would be unethical to threaten to do so to gain leverage, and Raimondo says he never threatened anyone; he just reported them. But in 2013, as farm worker lawyers prepared to file the retaliation case that landed at the Ninth Circuit, legislators amended the state code to make it explicit that merely reporting to law enforcement for a retaliatory purpose can result in disbarment.

Raimondo, it appears, then stopped his reporting. He says retaliation has never been his game. He was simply reporting the crime of having crossed the border illegally, and it was up to law enforcement to decide whether to make arrests. Imagine, he said, if he had been reporting another kind of crime. Would anyone have had a problem with him reporting a litigant for selling drugs or engaging in human trafficking or driving drunk? “How do we draw a principled intellectual distinction between [reporting] one type of violation of the law and another?” he asked.

The ethical infraction that grabs him, he says, involves alleged misconduct by one of his perennial foes, California Rural Legal Assistance, a legal services nonprofit. “Anything that happened to the workers was ancillary,” he said. “My primary purpose was holding CRLA accountable to the rules.”

The CRLA has a long record of representing indigent farm workers in routine as well as groundbreaking lawsuits, such as one that outlawed mandatory use of the backbreaking short-handled hoe many years ago. Raimondo says CRLA attorneys have no business representing undocumented workers, since CRLA receives federal funds through the Legal Services Corp., and Congress has generally barred agencies that receive such funds from representing the undocumented in civil cases. Raimondo and others have alleged for years that CRLA violates this stricture. But while investigations by the Legal Services Corp. have found reasons to be suspicious, they have ultimately been inconclusive. Investigators have been hampered by CRLA’s reluctance to turn over client records on grounds that doing so would violate client confidentiality.

CRLA executive director Jose Padilla declined to be interviewed for this article, but said in an email that his agency’s “litigation speaks for itself. If Attorney Raimondo’s interest in CRLA’s compliance with Federal regulations is serious, it can be addressed directly to the Legal Services Corporation that funds our civil legal services to farmworkers, the real victims in his quest to police us.”

Raimondo says he has been asking the Legal Services Corp. to stop CRLA from representing undocumented workers for more than 10 years. He even petitioned Fresno County Superior Court in 2012. That was in an effort to keep CRLA from representing a farm hand he said was undocumented who had sued a Raimondo client. “It bothers me,” Raimondo explained in an email to his principal contact at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, “that there are low-income individuals who are citizens legally present [in the United States] who desperately need these publicly funded services, and [the services] are being misdirected to individuals who are not legally entitled to them.”

Judge Trott of the Ninth Circuit scoffed at that, calling it part of “a mindboggling argument that this man was motivated by the ethics and the law.”

Raimondo said he was in the courtroom in March when Trott made that comment and remembers thinking, “Really? When was the last time you had a client?” Appointed to the bench by President Reagan after a long career as a prosecutor, Trott has never been in private practice.

In the case Trott was addressing, as well as most others, Raimondo said, he had no expectation that immigration authorities would take him up on his offer to help arrest the complainant because, as far as he knew, the complainant had no criminal record. His goal, he said, was merely to gather proof that CRLA was again representing an undocumented worker, in the hope of forcing CRLA off the case.

His clients –dairymen he described as an illiterate immigrant from the Azores and his son—were in bad shape financially and “from a compliance standpoint, the case was a disaster.” He acknowledged that the complainant “was definitely owed money for overtime, minimum wage, record keeping penalties. They were also violating immigration law because they knew he was undocumented.” But he said CRLA was making settlement demands so extreme that they would have bankrupted his client. “If we can get a different set of attorneys in the case,” he recalled telling his client, “maybe we’ll get somebody who’ll acknowledge your financial situation.”

Read the full story at Fair Warning

This story was produced by FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org), a nonprofit news organization based in Pasadena, California, that focuses on public health, consumer and environmental issues.

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