For more than 30 years, Modesto toiled in the central San Joaquin Valley fields, saving every spare penny to bring his family north from Mexico. Last year, he wrote a $30,000 check to an immigration consultant in Fresno County.
The day had finally arrived when Modesto -- a legal U.S. resident since 1980 -- could afford to bring his wife and five children to live with him in the U.S.
Or so he thought.
The immigration consultant filed sloppy and incomplete paperwork, took the money and ran. Modesto's family didn't get the visas, and he lost his life's savings.
It's stories like Modesto's that inspired professors and students at the San Joaquin College of Law to open a free law clinic at the Consulate of Mexico to help legal immigrants in the Valley.
Modesto's misfortune is fairly common, said Justin Atkinson, an attorney and professor at the San Joaquin College of Law who shared Modesto's story. Embarrassed that he was tricked, Modesto declined to provide his last name or more details about himself.
Modesto became Atkinson's client after the immigrant wandered into the Consulate of Mexico in Fresno last fall, bewildered and angry over the scam. There sat Atkinson and law student William Buttry, offering free legal advice. They were testing Atkinson's idea for the student-run law clinic.
Atkinson and Buttry filed Modesto's immigration paperwork -- correctly this time -- and Modesto's family will join him within a year, Atkinson said.
"It was a very, very simple case," Atkinson said. "But he just went to the wrong guy."
After helping more than 200 immigrants like Modesto at the makeshift law clinics last semester, Atkinson decided he and his students were ready for the real thing. Today, Atkinson and nine San Joaquin College of Law students officially open the New American Legal Clinic.
The clinic will fill a need in the Valley, which experts say has been overrun by immigration-service frauds. It also will train law students who can fill the area's deficit of immigration attorneys, which has opened the doors for scams, said some immigration authorities.
"We've got such a huge immigrant base, but there's not a lot of competent practitioners here," Atkinson said.
The clinic will offer free assistance to legal immigrants who qualify for citizenship, legal residency or a change of visa. Law students and professors will help legal immigrants get family visas or work permits, and victims of domestic violence who may be here illegally but qualify for a special visa to stay in the country.
The clinic will be open twice a week at the Consulate of Mexico, and students will take appointments at the San Joaquin College of Law campus in Clovis. Faculty advisers Gregory Francisco Gillett and Atkinson said they are prepared to help more than 2,000 immigrants in the spring semester, although they expect to be overrun with more demands for free legal advice than they can handle.
"One hundred percent of people who walk through the door, they're normally very desperate," said Buttry. "They're looking for any person who can reach out a kind hand."
Students and professors say they haven't heard from any critics of the clinic, but they're prepared for backlash from organizations opposed to immigration.
One prominent farm industry labor group, the Nisei Farmers League, supports the clinic and has offered to raise money for it.
Atkinson and Gillett say the law clinic is not an advocacy group, and they're not taking a position on immigration reform. Students will advise immigrants of their legal options and will only take cases from illegal immigrants who have a pathway to become legal. Last semester, Atkinson said he and Buttry turned away more than 40 undocumented immigrants looking for help.