Victims in the shadows

A Rowlett murder shines a light on the practices of notarios who victimize illegal immigrants desperate for a chance to remain in the United States

The police have made no arrests in the case, and a Dallas County grand jury investigation into it will soon enter its third month. Toby Shook, the assistant district attorney handling the case, declined to provide any new details about the ongoing investigation.

Whatever the outcome, the unfolding drama is shedding light on an old but growing underworld of con artists who prey on naïve and desperate immigrants whose hopes of becoming U.S. citizens are increasingly dim because of strict immigration laws that took effect in 1996.

Local immigration experts say Hierro is an example of the many immigration consultants or "notarios" who mask themselves as lawyers and sell their clients false promises that they can quickly become lawful residents. Many victims lose hundreds if not thousands of dollars, while others are deported and their legitimate chances of obtaining legal residency are forever destroyed.

INS spokesman Lynn Ligon says stopping rogue notarios from preying on immigrants is a good idea, but the INS doesn't have the resources to do it.
Mark Graham
INS spokesman Lynn Ligon says stopping rogue notarios from preying on immigrants is a good idea, but the INS doesn't have the resources to do it.
Attorney Peter Rutkowski brought complaints about Marisa Hierro's immigration consulting business to the attention of local authorities and got a typical response: Nothing happened.
Mark Graham
Attorney Peter Rutkowski brought complaints about Marisa Hierro's immigration consulting business to the attention of local authorities and got a typical response: Nothing happened.

Indeed, the Dallas Observer has obtained information that supports Shelton's claim that Hierro initiated and managed the pair's immigration business. Hierro later set up her own practice -- one that has led to complaints from clients that she took their money and did little if anything to help their cases.

In January, Hierro's business was closed, according to a sign written in Spanish and posted outside the vacant office, and her lawyer John Key says she is not talking to reporters. "I don't think the police want her talking to the media," Key says. "Her safety is a primary concern."

Equally troubling is the prospect that it took a bloody ambush to focus the legal community's attention on an industry that immigration advocates say has victimized the city's immigrant community for years. Although such businesses have long operated in Dallas, law enforcement agencies seldom target them because the agencies cannot justify the expense of what often are fruitless investigations.

Instead, enforcement usually falls to a group of volunteer lawyers whom the Texas Supreme Court has empowered to prosecute the unauthorized practice of law. But those cases are seldom pursued, in part because they are difficult to prove and, even if they are successful, the civil penalties are so weak that they have little effect on the perpetrators. Still, immigration advocates like Dallas lawyer Margaret Donnelly say an underlying reason why these crimes are allowed to go unpunished is the attitude that the victims aren't entitled to the same protections provided U.S. citizens. The problem, she says, will only get worse as the line of people waiting to become lawful residents continues to grow.

"There is this whole idea that, 'Well, we're not going to get involved here, because these people are undocumented, and they shouldn't be here in the first place,'" Donnelly says.


Marisa Hierro moved into a second-floor office on Market Street and went to work as MH Immigration Services last spring. Compared with the notarios and other immigration consultants who operate out of ramshackle storefronts in places like East Dallas and Oak Cliff, Hierro's West End office looked lavish.

"She has her big office back there with a big, pretty desk. Then she has a big conference room with a big dining table," Alejandra says. "Every time I went over there it was full of people. I always thought she was a lawyer."

Alejandra is one of a handful of known clients who have paid Hierro thousands of dollars to handle immigration work, according to copies of invoices, receipts, and legal contracts that appear on MH Immigration letterhead and bear Hierro's signature. The documents paint a picture of an elaborate operation that lured a stream of Spanish-speaking clients who forked over up to $4,000 each in their desperation to gain legal residency.

At the front end of the operation was Gente 2000, a Spanish-language newspaper that Hierro published and distributed for free inside businesses in Hispanic neighborhoods. The newspaper gave Hierro a platform from which to advertise her business.

Two former clients who spoke to the Observer and a lawyer who has consulted with several others say Hierro told her clients that she could quickly get them work permits and documentation that they either weren't eligible for or, more likely, had to wait years to obtain.

"If you have a dream and somebody tells you, 'Oh, yes, I can do it,' and you see a big office and people working in it, you think maybe it's true," Alejandra says. "Marisa gave me that hope. She rings your bell."

Attorney Peter Rutkowski says more than half a dozen of Hierro's clients complained to him about Hierro's and Shelton's services. He took their complaints to local law enforcement agencies and the INS, but received no help.

"None of these clients are given copies of anything, so as far as I know they [Hierro and Shelton] did nothing," he says.

"Fernando," who like Alejandra wished to keep his identity a secret out of fear of being deported, says Hierro filled him with the same hope when he consulted with her last year.

"Like all Mexicans, I went with the illusion of trying to become legal here," Fernando says. "[Hierro] gave me assurances that she could fix my case."

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