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

"I wanted to work hard to make more money, and I knew Dallas is a place where I could gain more skills," Fernando says.

For the last six years, Fernando has found employers willing to hire him for his muscle, despite his immigration status. As a result, he has been able to marry, begin a family, and wire some of his money home to his mother every month. While the money here is good, Fernando says it can't buy him the freedom to visit his mother without the fear of being deported and separated from his wife and child.

"I haven't seen my mother in six years, but I have an obligation to my wife and son," Fernando says. "I am sad. I feel tied-down. I am trapped."

Robert Evans
Attorney Margaret Donnelly says immigrants deserve the same protection as U.S. citizens.
Mark Graham
Attorney Margaret Donnelly says immigrants deserve the same protection as U.S. citizens.

Dallas immigration attorney Fernando Dubove says Fernando's desperation is a meal ticket for the bogus notarios and immigration consultants who operate near his office on Jefferson Boulevard in north Oak Cliff.

"It's the equivalent of going to faith healers. You can't find any qualified people that can tell you there's an easy fix, so they go to these notarios who tell them, 'I'll fill out these applications for you, and you'll be fine,'" Dubove says. "They want to hear that, and so they get taken."

It is impossible to estimate accurately how many of these rogue consultants exist in Dallas, but local immigration attorneys and advocates say they frequently receive clients who have been defrauded by consultants who either did nothing for them or, worse, filed incorrect paperwork with the INS.

"They are the bane of my existence," says Vanna Slaughter, director of immigration counseling services at Catholic Charities, one of the five local nonprofit agencies that provide legal services to immigrants.

"Oftentimes, by the time they get here, we can't rehabilitate their case, and that's even with people who have a legitimate chance to get residency," says Slaughter, who adds that the scams are "frequent enough [that] I really believe it is a significant consumer issue."

Not all consultants or notarios set out to defraud or misrepresent their clients. Many believe they are helping them, says Austin attorney Paul Parsons, chairman of a State Bar of Texas committee that tracks immigration and nationality laws.

As part of his work, Parsons says, he comes across two main types of people who sell bogus immigration legal representation. The first group is notarios, or notaries public. In the United States, virtually anyone can become a notary public, a title that enables one to legally witness signatures. But in Mexico, a notario publico is a respected lawyer who has been given additional authority by the governor of his or her state. In Dallas, however, notario publicos typically are not lawyers -- though they are often fluent in Spanish and some use their title to mislead clients.

"When people cross the border and they see a sign that says notary public in English or, worse, notario publico, they think, 'Hey this is somebody really special that can help me with my immigration work," Parsons says.

This problem is particularly common in cities like Dallas, where there is a large population of Spanish-speaking immigrants who go to notarios because their fees are much lower than those charged by attorneys. "It's an area where those that can least afford to be victimized often are," Parsons says. "They go to unauthorized persons for very critical legal matters that affect their entire family's future and their right to work and live in the United States."

The other type of scams Parsons sees is carried out by greedy lawyers who discover there is fortune to be made by charging immigrants fees to fill out what the lawyers mistakenly believe are simple INS forms. Oftentimes these lawyers don't see the clients themselves. Instead, they hire Spanish-speaking assistants to solicit clients. Once the clients are in the door, the assistants handle the paperwork and split the fees with the attorney.

Although INS documents appear simple to complete, knowing which forms to use and how to answer each of the questions they contain is a deceptively complicated process that requires a thorough knowledge of immigration law and a client's personal history. When mistakes are made, and they often are, the consequences to clients can be severe, Donnelly says.

"I would say, and this is a conservative guess, out of every five people that I see, at least one is bringing me a case where they are asking me to intervene because a notario has screwed up. And when they screw up, it's serious," Donnelly says. "It's the blind leading the blind."

A common problem Donnelly sees occurs when a notario prematurely files an application for permanent residency on behalf of a client who is not yet eligible. The application generates an appointment with the immigration court, where the client often is detained while the notario is nowhere to be found.

"These people, who would have been safely waiting their turn, now see themselves being deported," Donnelly says. "Those are the types of things I see all the time."

While there are unethical people who prey on illegal aliens, Dallas attorney John Key wants to make it clear that his client Hierro is not one of them. Still, Key's explanation for Hierro's activities during the last year, beginning with her springtime breakup with Catherine Shelton, is an ever-evolving story.

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