Immigration

Venezuelan Immigrants and the Lawyer Who Let Them Down

Accusations that a Miami attorney “scammed” Venezuelan asylum seekers speak volumes about the cruelty of the U.S. immigration system.

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When Aleidy Andara was 16 weeks pregnant with twin boys, she discovered during a routine ultrasound that she had a rare disorder causing an imbalance in the distribution of nutrients and oxygen between the fetuses. If she were to give birth in a Mexican hospital, the babies' chances of survival were low.

Andara and her husband, Javier Bracho, had fled Venezuela in 2019, after being detained, beaten, and tortured for participating in protests against the Maduro regime, and they had been living in Mexico for almost a year. They were seeking political asylum from the U.S., but as part of the "Remain in Mexico" program created by the Trump administration, they were required to wait outside the country while their cases were considered.

On August 11, 2020, desperate for Andara to be treated at a U.S. hospital, the couple hired a coyote to take them across the Rio Grande on an inflatable boat. They were picked up by border patrol, and Andara's plea was granted. On September 10, she gave birth to Noah and Nathan at a hospital in Indianapolis, Indiana. Noah required two heart surgeries and was in the hospital for four months. Bracho, who had been sent back to Mexico, wasn't able to be by his wife's side and didn't meet his sons until they were half a year old.

Andara and Bracho say that their entire ordeal could have been avoided if they hadn't hired a Miami-based immigration attorney named Rolando Vazquez.

Vazquez refers to himself as the "Angel of the Border," and boasts that he's never lost an asylum case—even though asylum cases have become extremely difficult to win in recent years. His Instagram account, where Vazquez seems to find most of his business, features emotional videos of clients expressing their gratitude for all that he's done for them. With his cherubic face and gentle manner, Vazquez often appears in the videos, looking on with earnest humility.

Vazquez, who is of Mexican descent, has alluded to the fact that one day he plans to run for political office. His wife, Sabina Conteras, came from Venezuela, and she has helped him find a niche working with immigrants who've been threatened, tortured, and imprisoned by the sham democracy led by Nicolás Maduro.

"He's one of the best in South Florida," Vazquez's attorney, Robert Harris, told Reason. "And I believe he's number one in the representation in immigration court of Venezuelans. Number one!" 

Andara and Bracho are now part of a community of Vazquez's ex-clients who are organizing to get him disbarred. They've come together in two WhatsApp groups, with about 60 total members, to commiserate about Vazquez's alleged misdeeds and prepare formal complaints to submit to the Florida Bar. The two groups also have a handful of volunteers who are helping with Spanish to English translation. 

Over the past few weeks, they've submitted 15 complaints, and they're planning to introduce 10 more this week. The Florida Bar currently has six open cases against Vazquez, according to a spokesperson, all of which have advanced to the second stage in its review process. The complaints aren't publicly available, but several former clients shared their submissions with Reason, which include copies of email and text correspondences. They allege that Vazquez and his staff "scammed" them by doing little or nothing to advance the cases he was paid to take on and that he didn't answer or return their calls. Several ex-clients are also accusing Contreras, who serves as the firm's office manager and senior paralegal, of verbally abusing them and demanding additional payment, even though the terms of their original contracts hadn't been fulfilled.

"These are claims by customers who didn't receive a good result" so they "attack a lawyer for his confidence or his professionalism because they wanted their case to go better," attorney Brian Barakat, told Reason. Barakat, who is representing Vazquez in his dealings with the Florida Bar, says that he has reviewed two of the claims so far, both of which were rejected. "I fully expect all of the claims to be dismissed," Barakat said.

In testimony that Andara submitted to the Bar, she described her experience working with Vazquez as "awful and traumatic" asking "kindly" for "justice to be made."She alleges that Vazquez missed a crucial hearing that took place over the phone, which led to a two-month postponement. In the meantime, the immigration courts closed down because of COVID-19, putting Andara, Bracho, and tens of thousands of other asylum claimants in limbo. After Andara became pregnant and needed emergency medical attention, she says that Vazquez declined to help her gain permission to enter the United States.

According to emails that the couple shared with Reason, Andara and Bracho paid Vazquez $4,000 to represent them, but after the twins were born, Sabina Contreras demanded $750 more to continue representing Andara, and an additional $2,500 to continue representing Bracho, on the grounds that their decision to cross the border had changed the terms of their cases. According to Andara's testimony submitted to the Florida Bar,  Contreras was "verbally abusive…to the point that she even told me in that call that she wished [for] my babies' death." 

"You act as if the additional work required by your illegal entry will be done for free," Contreras wrote in an email Andara shared with Reason. "I'll remind you again that the judge and lawyer for ICE are being informed of all your lies and malicious accusations," she wrote. When she told Contreras she would find a different lawyer, Andara says that Contreras attempted to charge them thousands more to drop their case and to return their paperwork.  

U.S. immigration law has long been rife with attorneys who take money from clients and then do little to advance their cases.

"It's very easy to make a lot of money losing asylum cases for $10,000 each and never really face any consequences," says immigration attorney Brian Hoffman, who's the executive director of the nonprofit Ohio Center for Strategic Immigration Litigation & Outreach. "This problem has been extremely severe and endemic for as long as I can remember."

Quality legal representation is expensive because litigating an immigration case requires navigating a mountain of red tape and the rules are constantly changing, so immigrants like Andara become easy targets for discount practitioners who promise big but never deliver.

Vazquez and Contreras declined our interview request, but they did connect us with Harris, another one of their attorneys, who maintained that the charges against his clients are fabricated. "To the extent that people are saying that Mr. Vasquez and people associated with this firm are, quote, 'abandoning them or scamming them,' I think is beyond the pale," Harris said.

"Sometimes these people are very belligerent and they just don't understand," said Harris, "particularly when they come from countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, and the like. And many times they don't understand the processes here in the United States, and when they don't get the results that they were looking for, they demand that the money be paid back." 

Several of Vazquez's accusers say they were too frightened to speak out until the investigative journalist Patricia Poleo, a winner of the prestigious King of Spain Journalism Award, and a Venezuelan political asylee herself, set out to expose him. Over the past month, she has been sharing video testimony from Vazquez's former clients on her nightly show, Agárrate.

On November 10, Vazquez sued Poleo in Miami Civil Court, along with four of his former clients who appeared on her show. The lawsuit denies all of the allegations, and asserts that by attacking Vazquez, Poleo engaged in "unfair business practices" by trying to destroy his law practice to benefit other immigration lawyers who advertise on her show. "Poleo kept secret from the consumers her financial interest to destroy Plaintiffs," the complaint states, "so that she can get clients and divert them to her business partners." 

Harris told Reason that his client is planning to amend the complaint to also charge Poleo with defamation. "I'm a First Amendment guy, I get it," Harris told Reason. "But she's going beyond."

In a since-deleted Instagram video (which Poleo captured and has been running on her nightly political show), Vazquez and Contreras hurled insults at Poleo. "You're not a person of God—you're a bitch," Contreras shouted.

Vazquez claims to be a prominent opponent of the Venezuelan government. "The Chavistas hate me because I won't help them," he said. "Patricia is a closeted Chavista," shouted Contreras, "and it pains her that Rolando is helping the detained by rescuing them from the claws of the Maduro regime." The lawsuit also asserts that Poleo's animus towards Vazquez is driven by her "hatred" of his political views.

It's a surprising claim to make about Patricia Poleo, who was exposing Hugo Chávez's efforts to undermine Venezuela's constitutional democracy back when he was still a darling of the left. In 2004, as editorial director of the newspaper El Nuevo País, Poleo was accused of "instigating rebellion" for sharing a video that demonstrated that Cubans had infiltrated the Venezuelan National Guard, which is one of several instances in which her reporting embarrassed the socialist government. The same year, her investigation of the suspicious killing of a Venezuelan prosecutor led the secret police to search her residence and call her before a military court. In 2005, when the government issued a warrant for her arrest in that case, Poleo escaped to the U.S. while hidden away on a boat and was granted asylum. The Venezuelan government responded by putting out a notice for her to be detained and extradited through INTERPOL, and Poleo was arrested in 2010 at an airport in Peru and held for several hours. The matter was dropped when the agency accepted that the attempt to prosecute Poleo was politically motivated.

The Chávez and Maduro regimes for years have used bogus defamation lawsuits, among other tactics, to silence journalists and shutter newspapers critical of the government. In 2004, Poleo herself was sued for defamation by Jesse Chacón, Minister of Interior and Justice under Chávez, for embarrassing him in the pages of El Nuevo País. She was stripped of her political rights, including her right to vote, and was sentenced to a six-month term in prison, though she didn't end up serving any time.

After relocating to Miami, Poleo continued her hard-nosed reporting on the Venezuelan government and its network of corruption. In 2015, she published a story in the Doral News alleging that the Miami businessman Gianfranco Rondón served as the "bag man" for Diosdado Cabello, the second most powerful political figure in Venezuela, who is wanted by the U.S. Department of State on allegations of "corrupt and violent narco-terrorism." After the story appeared, Rondon sued Poleo and her boss at the paper, Gianfranco Napolitano, for defamation and racketeering, accusing Napolitano of trying to extort him for $5 million in exchange for dropping the story. The charges were dismissed.

In a recent Instagram live video, Poleo mocked Vazquez's lawsuit and warmly greeted her fans, while taking enthusiastic bites of a ham and cheese sandwich. She assured her audience that if she was willing to risk her freedom by speaking truth to the Chávez regime, she wasn't about to be silenced by a Miami immigration attorney. "There isn't a judge in the U.S. who will demand that I stay silent because the First Amendment is freedom of speech," she said while smiling and waving the legal complaint in her hand.

Barakat, Vazquez's attorney before the Florida Bar, claimed in an interview with Reason that Poleo is trying to "extort" Vazquez, but when pressed, said that he has no evidence of her receiving or requesting payment from Vazquez or anyone else. He pointed to Rondón's defamation and racketeering suit, claiming that it shows "a pattern of somebody who deliberately attempts to ruin the reputation of people that she targets in an effort to either benefit herself or benefit others." 

When I asked Poleo about the allegation of "extortion," she said she would respond publicly on her show that evening. In her opening monologue, Poleo reflected back on the Gianfranco Rondón lawsuit cited by Barakat. Her reporting, she said, led the FBI to freeze his assets, and Rondón fled to Russia. "My 'pattern' of behavior is denouncing thieves, criminals, corrupt actors, and Chavistas," Poleo said, "and I do it with dignity and a lot of pride."

Vazquez and her attorneys have no substantive response to the allegations, she said, so their only defense is to attack her. "I haven't made a single dollar from this," in contrast to Barakat, "who is being paid with money that [Vazquez and Contreras] took from immigrants."

Barakat also told Reason that Vazquez's ex-clients are being manipulated by Poleo. "Whether they believe the facts are true or whether they're making them up," he told Reason, "I'm suggesting that they're all being coached by Ms. Poleo."

Those ex-clients have congregated on WhatsApp, where they message each other at all hours of the night, strategize, share alleged horror stories, and offer encouragement and emotional support. One of the groups is called Desenmascarando a Rolando, which means "unmasking Rolando," and its members have taken to referring to the self-described "Angel of the Border" as "The Devil of the Border," or Robando, which means "robbing" and is a play on his first name, "Rolando." Poleo, who is an active member of the group, said she makes no secret of the fact that she's assisting in the effort to get Vazquez disbarred. "I will advise them, I will support them, I will help them, because on top of being a journalist, I'm a Venezuelan," she told her audience.

If the allegations against Vazquez are true, how does he obtain the glowing video testimonies that populate his Instagram feed?

The case of Neleidy Aguilar may provide a clue. She appeared in a video that Vazquez shared on his feed testifying that he's "a very good lawyer and very accomplished…I recommend him to the entire world!"

That video was captured during Aguilar's initial consultation with Vazquez on July 31, 2020, in Orlando. Aguilar says that although she hadn't worked with him yet, she agreed to record an endorsement because their dealings had been positive up to that point. "I said what I really believed to be true at that moment," she told Reason.

Aguilar had been forced to flee Venezuela when she and her husband, Leonardo González, acted as whistleblowers in exposing a corrupt judge. The local police responded by kidnapping and beating them. Aguilar, who was pregnant at the time, says she suffered a placental detachment from being punched in the stomach. González nearly died from his injuries.

Upon entering the U.S., González was taken to the Eden Detention Center in Texas and held for 7 months, while Aguilar and her 10-year-old son, Sebastian, were allowed into the country. A severe asthmatic, González nearly died from lack of medical attention, and he missed the birth of their baby girl, Paula. 

Aguilar alleges that Vazquez did nothing to advance her case. He never registered with the court as her attorney and never submitted her petition for asylum. "Mrs. Neleidy, I told you that your case is not a priority, and you are not allowed to call," Contreras told her over the phone, according to the complaint that Aguilar filed with the Florida Bar. "If you call again I will charge you $300."

She hired a different lawyer. 

Another alleged victim is Annia Marquez, who also appeared in an Instagram video endorsing Vazquez. She later appeared on Poleo's show speaking out against him. Marquez is one of the four former clients who Vazquez is suing for defamation.

Marquez fled Venezuela because of political persecution—she was in hiding from the secret police for more than a year. When she arrived in the U.S., Marquez was taken to Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, where she spent 10 months incarcerated. She says she was held in a 7-by-10-foot cell, with one 20-minute break per day. She received one meal daily, consisting of a ham sandwich and peanut butter cookie, although she says she rarely felt hungry because she was overcome with anxiety.

Marquez says that she would have been released from detention much earlier if Vazquez, who her sister found on Instagram, hadn't failed to appear at three of her hearings in a row, leading the judge in her case to issue a series of monthlong postponements. The attorney Harris told Reason: "I think that [Mr. Vazquez] showed up at all the hearings that he had to show up for." (Marquez shared court records with Reason that support her account.)

Vazquez did show up at the fourth hearing, and Marquez had to pay his travel expenses amounting to about $6,000, which included a first-class plane ticket, she says.

After Marquez was granted asylum and moved to Miami, Contreras and Vazquez invited her to come work for them, and she accepted.

"When one leaves a detention center like that, they're very vulnerable," Marquez told Reason, explaining why she would accept a job for someone who she accuses of so badly mishandling her case. Shortly after starting the job, they asked her to record a video for social media recommending their services. 

"I felt like I couldn't say no," Marquez said. She alleged that during her month and a half working in Vazquez's law office, she saw him commit malpractice in more than 20 cases. She is planning to submit testimony of what she witnessed to the Florida Bar.

Today Marquez works for a shipping company in Miami and is paying back the money she borrowed from her godfather to pay Vazquez. Her three kids, ages 7, 17, and 19, have been living alone in Venezuela since her mother died of COVID-19 two months ago. 

Geraldine Mora is another of Vazquez's alleged victims who has appeared on Poleo's show. She is the subject of a feature-length documentary produced by Reason, which I'm co-directing in collaboration with the independent filmmaker Claudia Murray, that chronicles the economic and political collapse of Venezuela. 

Mora fled the country after her father, Carlos, was imprisoned and tortured by the Maduro regime. Mora, her husband, Brian, and son, David, became Vazquez's clients while applying for political asylum and living on the Mexican border.

Vazquez charged Mora $6,000, with a $2,500 down payment followed by monthly installments paid out over 10 months. At the beginning of February 2020, two days before Mora's first scheduled hearing in Texas, the family's first monthly installment of $350 was three days past due because they were struggling to come up with the money. 

Mora's mother, Nelsy Núñez, alleges that Contreras called her to demand that she pay the remaining $3,500 within two hours or Vazquez wouldn't show up at the upcoming hearing and wouldn't submit her asylum application to the court. I was in Miami filming with the Mora family as they navigated this crisis, capturing a tearful interview with Núñez in a Miami parking lot as the family considered what to do.

Barakat declined to comment on the specifics of Mora's case, but told Reason that "unlike what Ms. Poleo says in her reporting, you don't have to work if you're not paid."

Hoffman, who has no direct knowledge of Vazquez's handling of the Mora case, told Reason that demanding payment in exchange for submitting documentation violates an attorney's basic rules of conduct. If you're going to withdraw your services, you're required "to do it with enough time in advance so that the client can make other arrangements." 

"Saying, 'I'm not going to do this unless you pay me right now,' to me that sounds like extortion," Hoffman says.

Mora and Conteras worked out an arrangement, but Vazquez didn't show up at the February 3 hearing regardless, according to Mora, and the judge told her that there was no record of her paperwork and no registered attorney on file. She also alleges that Vazquez went long stretches without returning her calls, while Contreras continued to verbally harass her.

Meanwhile, Vazquez dropped her case. Núñez says that on top of the $6,000 legal fee, the family spent $2,800 to get documents supporting their case translated and notarized at Contreras' request. With the exception of one form that was returned, Mora says his office still has all of the original documents and is ignoring the family's pleas to return them. (Reason has reviewed text messages that support this claim.)

Vazquez' $6,000 fee was a heavy burden for the Mora family, but considering the obstacles involved in winning, it's a small amount of money.

"The U.S. government has created an asylum system where it's almost impossible to win," Hoffman told Reason. "So if you really want to take on an asylum case and litigate it well, [often] the person who's applying for asylum just doesn't have the financial resources to pay for that amount of time." 

Of the 71,071 asylum claims assigned to the "Remain in Mexico" program, 32,234 applications have been denied, 25,684 are still pending, and just 740 individuals, or one percent of applicants, have been granted asylum or asylum-like protection in the U.S. And just 10 percent were represented by attorneys during their proceedings.

Hoffman, whose work is funded by charitable donations, cited the case of one asylum applicant from El Salvador who he's representing. "We've probably gotten a quarter of a million dollars worth of free legal work over the last four years with this guy, and the case still is probably going to go on for two more years."

On Thanksgiving, members of the WhatsApp group "Unmasking Rolando" shared pictures of their turkeys, and Poleo published a special episode of her show featuring members of this "new family that I acquired at the end of the year—a family of immigrants who have been through moments that are terrible, tragic, and very difficult." 

Several ex-Vazquez clients submitted videos expressing what they're grateful for, including Annia Marquez, who said she was thankful to the U.S. "for opening its doors for me, allowing me to develop as a person, to live in freedom, so as to not feel persecuted." With Noah and Nathan on their laps, Aleidy Andara and Javier Bracho expressed their thanks "to this beautiful country" that "gave us a quality of life for our sons, for the opportunity not to be persecuted, and to grow as a family."

And Poleo herself expressed thanks to "the United States—for giving me the freedom to have an independent platform in which I'm able to give a voice to these immigrants."

Translation assistance by María Jose Inojosa Salina.