- Associated Press - Thursday, May 26, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A Louisiana man has pleaded guilty to a charge that he preyed on dozens of illegal immigrants in federal detention facilities by promising them legal assistance but taking their money without providing any help.

Edwin Zavala Jr., of Lafayette, pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court to a wire-fraud charge that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. A date for his sentencing hearing in Lafayette wasn’t immediately set.

Zavala isn’t an attorney, but a court filing says he received more than $42,000 from 44 people who paid him for legal assistance in deportation proceedings, to assist them in obtaining work permits or to get someone freed from a detention facility.

Zavala typically ceased all contact with them once he was paid, without providing any help, the filing says.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office filed a civil lawsuit last month against Zavala and his company, United Immigration Consulting LLC, over related allegations.

In June 2014, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security began investigating allegations that United Immigration Consulting mailed batches of letters to illegal immigrants at Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers in Texas. The letters advertised the company’s services in Spanish, were addressed to specific detainees and had their Alien Registration Numbers on the envelopes, according to Wednesday’s court filing.

“We have to teach the United States that Hispanics deserve to have opportunities in this country,” a letter said, according to Zavala’s March indictment. “You and everyone else that has been detained came to this country for a better life, not to be detained.”

In November 2013, a Homeland Security agent called Zavala and pretended to be a relative of an ICE detainee in Washington state, according to Wednesday’s court filing. The agent wired Zavala a down payment of $840 to represent his fictional relative in an immigration proceeding.

After the agent called Zavala to ask him why nobody from his company showed up at an immigration hearing, Zavala stopped returning the agent’s calls, the filing said.

Zavala solicited customers in other states. The filing says he received a $2,250 payment from a resident of California but failed to perform the services he promised.

Paul Parsons, an Austin, Texas-based attorney who specializes in immigration law, said another lawyer showed him a flier that Zavala apparently circulated at immigration detention centers in central Texas to advertise his “immigration consultation” services. Parsons said he notified the Texas attorney general’s consumer protection division about the flier about two years ago.

“When I saw it, I was outraged,” Parsons said. “These aspiring immigrants - detained or not - are the people who can least afford to be cheated out of their hard-earned savings.”

A federal public defender who represented Zavala at Wednesday’s hearing didn’t immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.

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