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Arizona immigration lawyer, husband sentenced to prison for conspiracy, forgery

A federal judge sentenced a disbarred Arizona immigration lawyer and her husband to prison Wednesday for their roles in an effort that included conspiracy, forging legal documents, lying to their clients about the fate of their immigration proceedings, and forging the signature of a court clerk with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Marivel Cantu-Madril, 41, was convicted on Dec. 6, 2019, after a four-day trial, and a Tucson jury found her guilty on six charges—including conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, possession of a counterfeit seal, and forgery of judicial signatures. Her husband, Richard A. Madril, was found guilty on one count of conspiracy for helping his spouse, including covering up his wife's actions, and at one point lying about her ability to practice law, according to court documents. 

Despite the lawyers' attempts to seek parole for their clients, U.S. District Judge Rosemary Marquez sentenced both to prison. Cantu-Madril was sentenced to six months in prison, followed by five years probation, while her husband was sentenced to three months in prison, followed by five years probation. Marquez also asked Cantu-Madril to work with mental health adviser. 

During the hearing Wednesday, Marquez said that the "system depends on trust," and that Cantu-Madril and her husband violated the trust of often "desperate people," who face immigration proceedings on a daily basis.

"You took an oath to represent people, and be honest," Marquez said. "And, you had the privilege of having a bar license. All of us, who are lawyers guard that privilege." 

The grand jury indictment charged Cantu-Madril with violating the law over nearly six years from Sept. 2012 to Oct. 2018. During that period, she advised clients they were ineligible for lawful immigration status when they were actually eligible for some protections, deceiving clients about their cases, and Cantu-Madril made false statements. 

In one case, Cantu-Madril lied to her client—identified only as Jane Doe in court records—about her case, failing to inform the woman that an immigration judge ordered her deportation and gave her 60 days to leave the country. She also was involved in an attempt to impersonate an immigration officer during a phone call with a client, and she forged the signature of Joan Ryan, a deputy clerk with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. 

She also falsified legal documents and told one client that he had been given a visa and was eligible to apply for residency. Cantu-Madril also took another client's letter from a federal agency and used it as the basis to forge a new letter, which she gave to another client. 

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Her husband, a junior partner in the law firm the couple shared, appeared to help her, and in one case lied to a client about her status as a lawyer, telling the man during an immigration proceeding that she was sick.

Cantu-Madril's lawyer, Mark Willimann argued that his client "got in over her head," and "cut corners" as she struggled with personal issues. Willimann told Marquez that he'd been "handcuffed" by his client because "she wants to fall on her sword." And, he argued that she should be given probation because that was the only way Cantu-Madril could "make everyone whole." 

"She’s lost everything," he said. Earlier that year, Cantu-Madril lost her Arizona law license as part of a consent agreement, and Willimann said that his client tried to make restitution, and that she admitted her crime to the jury during the trial last December. 

During a tearful statement, Cantu-Madril apologized to the victims, and to her husband and she family. "Why did I do this? I don’t know, I was struggling. I’m not making excuses, and I know I hurt a lot of people," she said. "I’ve my husband, my marriage, and it’s difficult." 

"I wanted to fix her, wanted to get her to were she was once, but my actions validated her and enabled her to harm others," said her husband. Madril told Marquez that he struggled to pass the bar to become a lawyer, and so he worked as an "assistant," and that "tied into his faith in her, and his willingness to ignore the obvious signs that something was wrong." 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean J. Sullivan, from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Mexico prosecuted the case. Following statements from two victims, who furiously explained in Spanish how they'd suffered from Cantu-Madril's actions, Sullivan argued that Wednesday was "the day when justice is done." 

"We have victims here in the courtroom, and people on the phone," he said "And, immigrants who will no doubt hear about this case. It’s a profound moment for these victims," he said. "Giving bad news to a client is hard, but there are sensible rules about how you do that, and you need to follow those rules. And, the defendant treated these people in egregious way, she lied to them, threatened them, and subjected them to ridicule." 

During a victim's impact statement, one man told Marquez that he had six kids and he was working in the U.S.

"What is going to happen to my immigration status?" he asked through a translator. 

"I can’t answer that question, that’s a separate proceeding," Marquez said. He continued, "She put a sentence on us, and we want a sentence on her, because of everything she put us through because she didn’t have any compassion for us." 

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While Cantu-Madril tried to downplay his client's efforts, noting that her forgery of the letter was "not sophisticated," because she "didn't use Photoshop." However, Sullivan noted nonetheless the case took "tremendous investigation" from at least one special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

HSI led the case because of Cantu-Madril's impersonation of an immigration officer during a phone call.

Before his summation, Sullivan also managed to step into it with Marquez. While asking her to ignore one letter, written on behalf of Cantu-Madril, Sullivan noted that a Special Agent with HSI went to speak to the letter's author. 

Doing so "borders on intimidation," Marquez noted. "I never seen that in all my years of practice, when an agent is instructed to go see someone who has sent something to the court." Asking a person to potentially withdraw a letter "stifles someone who wants to talk to the court about a defendant." 

"I’m just disturbed by that, and it borders on being improper," Marquez told Sullivan. 

Marquez moved on and noted that the couple violated the law on more than one occasion, and that "it wasn't just a one-time thing, but it seems to have escalated." 

"I’ve been there, I practiced for 20 years in a very busy office, and felt the stresses that you’ve felt," Marquez said. Marquez noted that she regularly sentences desperate people who have come across the desert, and that the couple took advantage of people’s desperation. "I send people to prison every day, who do not have the privileges that you have." 

"This system works on trust," she said. "You lied to the court," she said, "but you didn’t think are as grave as they were."

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The U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Tucson.