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

During a telephone consultation, Fernando says, Hierro promised to get him a green card in under a year for a fee of $2,200. Fernando later made a $400 down payment and signed a contract in which he agreed to make regular payments of $250. Like clockwork, he paid his dues every other week for five months. The last payment he made, according to a copy of an invoice he saved, was on December 20 -- the same day Hierro was shot.

Like Alejandra, Fernando believed that Hierro was a lawyer. "They promised to file the paperwork to begin my residency process," he says. "Every week, I called them to find out about the status of my case -- if Immigration had accepted or denied it. She said everything was OK because the INS had not responded."

Hierro's image as a lawyer was bolstered, in part, by the legally worded contracts or "fee payment schedule" forms Hierro required her clients to sign. Clients agreed to make "non-refundable" payments in order to "retain" Hierro to represent them in immigration matters. In the event that the clients failed to make "timely payments," the forms state, they will have breached their contract with Hierro, who "may choose to terminate representation without further notice."

At Catholic Charities, Vanna Slaughter sees a steady stream of clients who have been ripped off by rogue notarios. It's a problem that could be solved, she says, if only it were a priority.
Mark Graham
At Catholic Charities, Vanna Slaughter sees a steady stream of clients who have been ripped off by rogue notarios. It's a problem that could be solved, she says, if only it were a priority.

Before the cases were terminated, however, Hierro and her staff sent their nonpaying clients letters demanding money. One client got a particularly frightening missive from Hierro in August 1999, a little more than a month after he gave Hierro $600 out of a total fee of $4,000 to handle his applications for a work permit and permanent residency.

"We are sending this letter to you because we have attempted to collect payment on your account without success," Hierro wrote. "If we do not receive a reply from you within seven days, we will close your case with our office. In the case that we do this, we will inform Immigration that you have chosen to discontinue your processing."

Hierro's payment schedule often robbed Fernando of every extra cent he earned assembling display racks for convenience stores. "Almost everything came from my wages," he says. "Sometimes I needed to buy clothes for my little one, and I couldn't. I had no money left. I had to pay my bills, and sometimes I would ask a family member to make a down payment for the services they provided."

It wasn't until Fernando heard that Hierro had been shot that he began to worry about his case. In early February, Fernando went to Hierro's West End business only to find a vacant office and a sign that said the business had moved to an undisclosed location. Fernando says he went next door to the offices of Gente 2000 to inquire about Hierro's condition. He was told he could make his payment with them.

"I said, 'I don't want to leave a payment. I want to know why they were closed,'" Fernando says.

Fernando went to the Mexican Consulate to complain about Hierro and seek help determining his status with the INS. Now, as he pieces together his interactions with Hierro, he realizes he has no documents showing that she ever filed any paperwork on his behalf.

"As far as I'm concerned, they haven't done anything," he says. Fernando, who is married to a permanent resident and whose infant son is a U.S. citizen, has since learned that he must wait several years before he is eligible for a green card. "Everything I was working for just crumbled."

In the 22 years that Margaret Donnelly has practiced immigration law in Dallas, she has often met people with stories like Fernando's and Alejandra's. If anything, she hopes the sensational Rowlett ambush will serve as a wake-up call to the legal profession.

"This Marisa Hierro case shows how serious it is, the amount of fraud going on," says Donnelly, who heard about Hierro from clients who lost money to her. "We didn't run into one or two cases of fraud. We ran into several. It's very obvious that this woman was making hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. It's very easy to make money lying."

Qualified immigration attorneys know that there are no shortcuts when it comes to getting documentation from the INS. But shortcuts are what notarios have for sale and, in Dallas, there is no shortage of buyers.

A Mexican who is married to a U.S. citizen must wait at least a year before becoming eligible for a green card if he or she were to apply for one today. For those married to lawful permanent residents, the wait is seven and a half years. The wait can go much longer, depending on an individual immigrant's situation.

For undocumented Mexicans who live in Dallas illegally, the wait can force them to choose between living here illegally and earning a living wage or returning to poverty in Mexico. Fernando makes that choice every day.

When Fernando was 13 years old, poverty and an abusive father forced him to quit school so he could support his mother. One of the jobs Fernando landed had him paving the streets in his hometown for $300 a month and a bag of beans and rice. When he was 18, Fernando crossed the border illegally, bound for Dallas.

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