Ignacio Estevez was 16 when he came to the United States from Guatemala in 1987 to pluck pistachios in California for 20 cents a barrel. He's since sweated his way into a construction job with benefits and lives in Forest Grove in a mobile home off Pacific Highway.
"From the first day I come here," he says in English still influenced by his Central American roots, "I no stop working."
Estevez originally entered the U.S. without proper papers and has not left the country since. He married, and has two daughters. Estevez's mother lives in Oaxaca, Mexico, and is aging. Without citizenship, he can't risk a trip to see her. If caught coming back into the U.S., Estevez could be barred from the country for at least 10 years.
"Oh yeah, I miss her," Estevez says. "I don't know how many years I have left to visit her."
So when a co-worker told Estevez there was a miracle worker in Medford who could get him his citizenship in a snap, he leapt at the idea. The pair drove five hours south in January 2009, arriving at a small house converted into an office for a business called Immigration Solutions.
Inside, they met Patrick Snyder—a formidable 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds in a nice suit—and a translator, Juvenal Vega.
Estevez says Vega, a Mexican-American with salt-and-pepper hair, did all the talking. He told Estevez that Snyder worked for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and had ties to the FBI. Snyder could pull strings and would guarantee Estevez a work visa and green card—if not citizenship—fast. Estevez was wowed by promises and the official-looking documents flashed in front of him. "He say, 'I understand all the areas of immigration,'" Estevez says of Snyder. "I believed him because he a nice person."
Snyder's help would cost $5,000. Cash. Estevez borrowed the money from a bank, forked it over to Snyder and became one of a long list of victims of Immigration Solutions, what lawyers are calling the largest known case of immigration fraud in Oregon history.
Immigration lawyers say Snyder and Vega plied Interstate 5 from Portland to Los Angeles for four years, assuring undocumented immigrants they would help them earn work visas and citizenship quick—an appealing scenario for a process that usually takes years. Instead, victims say Snyder and Vega made promises they didn't keep, filing false documents or doing nothing at all while milking them for as much money as possible.
Immigration Solutions recruited immigrants at churches and through word-of-mouth. Snyder would wear fake badges and show up in fancy black cars to burnish his image as a government agent. When promised documents failed to come through, Vega would make excuses for Snyder, before both eventually stopped returning victims' frantic calls.
Lawyers familiar with the case tell WW the pair duped at least 80 people—including dozens in the Portland and Salem areas—but the actual number isn't known. The lawyers estimate the pair made off with between $500,000 and $1 million.
Most victims of what's known in immigration circles as "notario fraud" never come forward, terrified that if they speak to police about the crime, they'll be deported.
Immigration Solutions has been under investigation by state and federal authorities since 2011, even as Snyder and Vega continued to operate through mid-2012. Immigration lawyers who have provided the FBI and the U.S. Attorneys with notebooks of evidence are outraged by the lack of action.
"What more do you need?" asks Teresa Statler, a longtime Portland immigration lawyer. If this scam were pulled on the elderly or the middle class, Statler adds, "They would be finding Snyder and Vega and prosecuting them."
Which, it turns out, isn't that difficult. While Snyder is officially wanted on unrelated charges, officials say they know where he is. And WW had no problem finding and speaking to Vega at his church near Medford.
As Congress gears up for major immigration reform, advocates say authorities need to step up and protect the estimated 160,000 undocumented immigrants in Oregon.
"We are talking about one of the most vulnerable populations out there," says John Marandas, a partner in Marandas & McClellan Immigration Law, whose Lake Oswego firm has seen more than 25 of Snyder and Vega's victims. "When they get the hope of some type of solution, they are gullible. They need extra protection and help."
Estevez says he lost $7,000 to Snyder—who threatened to deport him if he went to the cops. He separated from his wife, and the false documents Snyder filed on his behalf have made his case more complicated, and expensive, for a real lawyer to fix. Estevez says he's now on his way to gaining citizenship—but wants Snyder held accountable.
"I want that guy to give me my money back," Estevez says, "or go to jail."
Immigration Solutions is part of what authorities worry is an exploding rise in businesses that say they'll help immigrants with their applications for legal status. Often, they use the term "notarios públicos," which in Latin America means a lawyer, but in the U.S. just means notary public. Some notarios are well-meaning, hoping to earn a little money while offering real help, whereas others are predatory scam artists.
But in the U.S., unless a person is a lawyer or agent accredited by the federal Department of Justice's Board of Immigration Appeals, they are forbidden from aiding others to navigate the excruciatingly complex immigration process.
Immigration lawyers say notario fraud is rarely prosecuted as a crime. It's usually treated as a civil matter, if state and federal authorities pay any attention to it at all.
The Oregon State Bar can send cease-and-desist letters for the unlawful practice of law to suspected notarios, and victims can also call the Oregon Department of Justice, which goes after notarios through its civil division.
Brent Renison, chairman of the Oregon chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says the fraud committed by notarios is clearly a crime.
"They get a letter for practicing law without a license? What the heck?" Renison says. "If you shoplift a candy bar from Wal-Mart, you're going to jail."
Medford police detectives and the Jackson County District Attorney's Office handled the initial claims of theft committed by Snyder and Vega. As local authorities learned this might be a multistate crime, they provided evidence to the FBI in 2011.
The case floundered there. The Oregon DOJ fielded a complaint against Immigration Solutions that year, says a spokesman, but passed it up when it learned the FBI was investigating.
"That's the problem," Statler says. "It's everybody's baby, so it's nobody's baby."
FBI agents have met with victims, obtained phone recordings and collected dozens of receipts detailing payments to Snyder and false forms he allegedly created.
Sam Reese, an accredited representative for the nonprofit Immigration Counseling Service in downtown Portland, represents several of Snyder and Vega's alleged victims. He says the FBI has failed to follow up on evidence he's offered them.
"To steal from people who have to borrow, visit soup kitchens and work extra hours at minimum wage is so much more tangible" than faceless crimes such as bank robbery that garner jail time, Reese says. "And yet the arrests don't happen."
Amanda Marshall, the U.S. Attorney for Oregon, tells WW she cannot talk about an investigation against Snyder or Vega. But she says notario fraud is a priority for her office. "If there are 50 or more victims of notario fraud, and the evidence supports the fact it is a federal crime," Marshall says, "that would be a case we would be incredibly motivated to bring."
However, since Marshall took over as U.S. Attorney in 2011, her office has not brought a single notario case.
WW spoke with 10 people who say they were victimized by Snyder and Vega. They describe a con job akin to a pyramid scheme.
It isn't clear where Snyder, 37, grew up, but public records show he had been in Southern Oregon for about 15 years before he allegedly started his notario business.
He was a petty criminal who faced allegations of abuse from a number of women. In 2007, his then-wife, Kayla Snyder—with whom he has two sons, ages 10 and 8—sought a restraining order based on allegations Snyder pushed her down, pulled her hair and threw her into her Jeep face first.
Another woman, Kristina Maria Espinoza, sought a restraining order in Douglas County the next year, alleging Snyder had threatened to kill her.
He's currently a fugitive on a 2007 theft case in Douglas County (he ran up $7,549 in fraudulent checks at auto-parts shops and a Ray's Food Place in Roseburg) and was convicted for theft in Jackson County in 2009.
Vega, 51, has lived in Southern Oregon for decades and is a U.S. citizen. He and his wife, Silvia, have three grown children. Vega is a longtime employee of the Boise Cascade mill in Medford, and has been involved with several local churches, including as the former pastor of a Pentecostal church that's now closed.
Vega would show up at churches from Ashland to Portland singing the praises of Immigration Solutions to the congregants. He allegedly targeted fundamental Christian churches with Hispanic congregations, including the Apostolic Church of Salem and Apostolic Lighthouse in Klamath Falls. Once Snyder and Vega signed a client, they would offer the client money for bringing in new clients.
Lawyers familiar with the cases say Snyder made it appear he was pursuing help for clients: signing documents, filing reports (some false) and going so far as to send some clients to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Portland to be fingerprinted. According to victims of the scam, Vega translated all of it.
One of Immigration Solutions' many victims is Veronica, who is not in the U.S. legally and asked that her last name not be used.
Veronica, 29, who lives in Yamhill County, came to the United States as a small girl, crossing the border with her family from Juarez, Mexico, in 1989. She grew up in Texas and California, graduating from high school in 2002 before she met and married her husband, Manuel, who is also undocumented.
She couldn't find work without papers, and Manuel also wanted legal status. Veronica says she desperately wanted a career, and to be legal to ensure she could stay with their son, who is now 6.
She says she first saw Vega in December 2010, when he took the microphone at the Apostolic Church of Salem. Vega told the congregation in Spanish he was a minister who could help with immigration. He returned a few months later with Snyder, whom Vega introduced as an employee with Homeland Security—and as a private investigator and lawyer.
"We thought this man was for real," Veronica says of Snyder. "We talked about it and said, 'Well, it's a good opportunity for us to get our papers, to get our residency.' We had dreams, that we can get good jobs and buy ourselves a car and make that dream come true."
The couple drove to Immigration Solutions in Medford on May 11, 2011. Vega was dressed casually and Snyder sat smoking a cigarette, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, Veronica says. After hearing the sales pitch, Veronica and Manuel pulled together $10,000 in cash to help them both.
Snyder soon called to tell Veronica her application for a work permit was more complicated than he had expected. He needed more money. The couple went back to Medford, where Snyder appeared driving a black Pontiac GTO and wearing a suit and Homeland Security and immigration badges. "He looked sort of like a general," she says.
They gave Snyder another $3,000, borrowed from Veronica's brother.
Snyder told Veronica and Manuel they could make money—$5,000 toward their bill—by referring four friends and family members to Immigration Solutions, she says. Plus, they thought they were helping people. She estimates more than 50 members from the Salem church gave money to Snyder and Vega.
But when Vega called in the fall of 2011 to say Snyder needed another $765, they got suspicious.
Manuel checked online with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and found no record that Snyder had filed any paperwork. He called Vega and demanded answers. Veronica—who speaks English while her husband does not—tells WW her husband instead received a threat.
"He told us to stop talking about Patrick Snyder," Veronica says, "because we can be deported or something can happen to our family."
Veronica says it was terrifying to approach authorities with her case. Like other victims, she says her trust in others has been shattered. The only reason she can think of that Snyder is still free is that he actually does have ties to the FBI.
"[Police] can't get Patrick because why? Is he protected? Is something going on?" Veronica asks. "Is Patrick Snyder protected from the FBI? Does he have somebody who is protecting him?"
On a Sunday afternoon earlier this month, Vega places his hands on the forehead of a young woman, who immediately drops to her knees, slain in the spirit, and flaps her hands as if she might take flight.
Vega—one of the two alleged ringleaders of the Immigrations Solutions fraud—stands in the middle of the sanctuary of Apostolica Unida Rios de Agua Viva (the Apostolic Church of Living Waters) in Phoenix, Ore., a small town about five miles southeast of Medford.
Latin gospel music from a five-piece band wearing matching blue suit jackets booms from two massive speakers mounted to the wood-raftered ceiling.
Vega, an assistant pastor at the church, prays furiously over the woman, who, like all the other women in attendance, has covered her hair with a lace veil.
Gerardo "Jerry" Jimenez works the sound system. He says it's often impossible to watch Vega lay hands or give a blessing and not want to punch him.
Jimenez says he knows of four other church members who paid Snyder for help with their immigration cases. Jimenez says he ended up paying $6,950 over a year's time. In the end, nothing happened with his case. Vega ducked Jimenez's calls, and said Snyder was always out of town or unavailable.
"They robbed me," says Jimenez, one of the original victims who went to Medford police.
Today, Vega says he too was drawn in by Snyder's charm—and that he's a victim as well.
Vega agreed to speak with WW on Nov. 2 following Sunday services at Apostolica Unida Rios de Agua Viva. He and his wife sat in the pastor's private office.
His son, also named Juvenal Vega, has a long string of methamphetamine- and gang-related arrests. He's been in and out of jail for several years, including for taking part in a 20-person riot in 2011 involving knives, bats and clubs.
That's how Vega says he first met Snyder, who presented himself as an investigator who could help the Vegas beat their son's Measure 11 charges. Vega says he and his wife paid Snyder's company, Elite Investigations, $13,500. (A search of state Department of Public Safety and Oregon Board of Investigators records shows Snyder has never applied for a private investigator license in Oregon.)
Soon, Vega says, Snyder was asking him to help translate for Immigration Solutions. Vega says he wanted to help people get their citizenship, and he also believed Snyder was an immigration insider.
But Vega says Snyder conned him. He says Snyder did nothing to help his son. Vega also showed WW receipts made out to Snyder for $30,000, which he promised to invest for the couple. That money is also gone, Vega says.
"Patrick used me, he played me," Vega says. "I've been a victim too."
As the calls from Snyder's victims to Vega grew more frequent and frantic, Vega says he kept the faith. He says he never got any of the money he was promised by Snyder.
"A lot of people, only because I translate for them, only because they saw me with him, they think I took their money too," Vega says. "Now he is gone and I have to face the people."
Snyder disappeared late last year. Vega says he's embarrassed by the looks and accusations he and his wife receive in church and around town. "A lot of people say stuff because they are mad," Vega says. "I feel bad, but what are we supposed to do?"
Many of Immigration Solutions' victims don't buy it. Some say Vega mocked them during conversations. Others say they never spoke to Snyder, just to Vega, about their immigration issues.
"I do not understand that guy in a church," says Estevez, the construction worker from Forest Grove who lost thousands. "Because he's a liar."
The last time Snyder surfaced, Vega says, was last year after Vega's sister, Sarita, questioned why there had been no progress with her husband's immigration paperwork, which they paid him $3,295 to file.
Sarita Vega tells WW that Snyder told her he carries a .45 Magnum handgun and if she came to his house, he'd shoot her. "That was the last I heard of him," she says.
After that, Juvenal Vega says he got a text message from someone claiming to be Snyder's girlfriend, saying he was dead.
He isn't. In September, Snyder had charges for parole violation dropped in Jackson County Circuit Court.
The deputy district attorney, Mandi Gould, said in a filing that Snyder "is in a long-term nursing rehabilitation center and non-ambulatory."
State Department of Justice emails obtained by WW say Snyder was rendered disabled by a series of "drug-related strokes." The emails also say he no longer has any assets.
WW tracked Snyder to the Royale Gardens Health & Rehabilitation Center in Grants Pass, which confirmed he was a resident there until about a month ago. The center does not know where he is now.
Law enforcement officials confirm they know where Snyder is. But they won't say why he has thus far gotten away with his crimes.
Lawyers who have followed the case say they're appalled that a reporter could find ample evidence of the crime, and even interview an alleged perpetrator, in a few months while federal officials have stalled for two years.
"I'm dumbfounded," says Statler, a Portland immigration lawyer. "They need to put this to bed to give these people some sense of security in their lives.â