Enedino Neto thought his prayers were answered in 2001 when he walked into a downtown Boston law office overflowing with illegal immigrants like him, all in a frenzied rush to apply for newly available work visas that could someday lead to US citizenship. Everyone said lawyer John K. Dvorak was the one for the job.
But now, 11 years later, the government is sanctioning the lawyer, and Neto is being expelled from the United States.
Last week, Dvorak’s Massachusetts law license was suspended for 18 months, following federal sanctions in March for failing to provide accurate information in immigrants’ visa applications. Advocates say Neto is one of potentially hundreds of immigrants swept up in a broad investigation that led to a temporary penalty for the lawyer, while altering the lives of immigrants who say they used his services in good faith.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,’’ said Hannah Kubica, an immigration lawyer whose firm, Joyce & Associates, represents Neto and many other former Dvorak clients. “It’s been years and it’s been tens of thousands of dollars going through this process. And they’re being unfairly targeted because of their association with this attorney.’’
The controversy stems from a period in 2001, when the government temporarily allowed certain illegal immigrants to apply for visas through others as a path to legal residency.
Under the rules of the program, the immigrants had to seek the visas through relatives or employers who acted as sponsors. Employers were required to certify that they wanted to hire the immigrant applicants for jobs they couldn’t fill with American workers. And the immigrants had to produce letters from former employers in their home countries who could vouch for their qualifications.
Seeking guidance in assembling the complex applications, dozens of cooks, cleaners, and other immigrants went to Dvorak. Hundreds received visas.
Eight years later, in 2009, sponsors began receiving letters from federal officials, saying they had found “fraudulent information’’ such as fake work letters in a “significant number’’ of Dvorak’s cases and that they were revoking work visas.
In March, the Board of Immigration Appeals suspended Dvorak from practicing before the board, immigration courts, and the Department of Homeland Security. The board said Dvorak failed to manage his workload, provide competent representation, and “misled, misinformed, or deceived’’ US officials because the petitions in 14 cases “did not contain accurate information and documentation.’’
The suspension is for three years, but could be reduced to 18 months under federal regulations.
Federal immigration officials, citing privacy laws, would not elaborate on the cases this week or say how many immigrants are now facing deportation as a result. A federal judge presiding over one of the immigrants’ lawsuits in Boston said last year in court records that “hundreds’’ of immigrants received letters notifying them that the government was revoking their visas.
Officials with US Citizenship and Immigration Services said they examined each immigrant’s case individually.
“USCIS maintains the integrity of America’s immigration system by evaluating cases based on an individualized review of the pertinent facts and the law,’’ said Christopher S. Bentley, the agency’s press secretary. “When there is evidence that suggests that an individual may have improperly received an immigration benefit or status, USCIS will review that decision.’’
But immigration lawyers say US officials are acting unfairly and punishing immigrants with valid cases because Dvorak was their lawyer.
“There were many people that were deserving and there were many people that weren’t,’’ said Harvey Kaplan, a Boston immigration lawyer. “The point of the matter is that the process needs to be fair. There should not be guilt by association.’’
A handful of immigrants have filed lawsuits in US District Court in Boston seeking to stay in the United States.
Andrew Howard, a Newton lawyer handling one of the suits, said after his clients sued, immigration officials reinstated the visas of eight plaintiffs, prompting them to drop out of the suit. Then, officials once again revoked six of their visas, and now most are facing deportation.
“We’re still waiting to see the evidence that would link my clients or their petitioners to fraud,’’ Howard said.
Dvorak did not respond to requests for comment, and his lawyer, Kevin Colmey, declined to answer questions about the immigrants’ cases.
“Mr. Dvorak has taken the agency’s actions very seriously and he has resolved this matter by agreeing not to contest allegations about inaccuracies in 14 immigration applications, many of which are about a decade or so old,’’ Colmey said.
But for many immigrants the cases are very much alive. In the 11 years since they met Dvorak, many bought houses, moved on to other jobs, and started families, hoping to become US citizens. Now many are threatened with deportation.
Neto, now a 49-year-old volunteer church pastor and medical translator, is not among the 14 cases that federal officials listed when sanctioning Dvorak.
In a 2010 letter to the Framingham restaurant that had sponsored Neto, the USCIS said the restaurant had failed to prove it had sought American workers. It also said that Dvorak had instructed many immigrant clients to obtain fake employment letters. Neto said his work letters were authentic.
A Boston immigration judge ordered him earlier this year to leave the country by June 15.
“From the depths of my heart, I love this country,’’ Neto said. “I’m not convinced that immigration is acting the way America really is.’’
L. Costa, whose mother was another former Dvorak client, who asked that her full name not be used for fear of losing her job, said she still does not know why her family’s papers have not come through. Costa said two friends who hired Dvorak are now US citizens, while she, a college student here since age 9, is working illegally to pay her tuition and fearing deportation to Brazil.
“I wish they would come out and say this is what they found,’’ she said.Maria Sacchetti can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.