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

"Unless she was complicit in the former employee's wrongful acts or ordered, engaged, or permitted known wrongful acts, Ms. Shelton has not committed professional misconduct," wrote Lee.

Although Shelton was the subject of State Bar hearings scheduled last summer, Bar officials won't comment on the investigation. The Bar, which is notoriously secretive about its disciplinary actions, has a policy of not commenting on any cases until formal action is taken against an attorney's license.

While at least two Dallas attorneys have complained about Hierro to the Dallas Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee (UPL), it is not known whether the organization has begun an investigation into her business.

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.

Key says he couldn't comment about any complaints made against Hierro because he hasn't seen them, but he characterized allegations that she misled her clients as unsubstantiated gossip spread by reporters following the December 20 ambush.

"There's no merit to them. We've seen all of this before. When you get right down to it, there's nothing there," says Key, who hasn't received any notice that Hierro is the subject of any inquiries and doubts that she will become one. "If she's not in the business anymore, there would be nothing to investigate."

Key may have reason to hope that an investigation never begins. The Observer has confirmed that Hierro and Key have appeared together on behalf of at least one client in immigration court and that Key's registered address in the court is the same as Hierro's now-defunct West End business.

One person who complained about Hierro was Fernando Dubove, who notified the Dallas UPL Committee last year after he saw an advertisement for her immigration services Hierro published in a Spanish-language newspaper. When he checked out the address of the business, Dubove says, it traced back to Key's office.

Thinking Hierro was using Key's address without his permission, Dubove says, he called Key as a professional courtesy to warn him. Key explained that Hierro rented office space there but had no affiliation with him. Dubove says he forgot about the matter until one day, about three months ago, when he noticed a new attorney in the immigration court who was doing what he describes as a noticeably poor job representing his client. The attorney was Key, who was there with Hierro.

"I was just blindsided by seeing her there. Number two, I was blindsided seeing him with her there," Dubove says. "On top of having seen the way he represented that client in there, suddenly all the bells and whistles went off."

Outside the courtroom, Dubove says, he confronted Key about his relationship with Hierro, and the conversation quickly escalated into confrontation.

"He looks at me and says, 'You didn't talk to me and couldn't prove you did.' I said I wasn't trying to play catch-ya," says Dubove, who now suspects that Key and Hierro were partners all along. "Now Key's playing the 'Oh, my God, the woman has been victimized' role, but the truth is, he knows that if this gets investigated by the Bar, his butt's in the sling too."

Key confirmed that he began handling deportation cases about a year ago -- a slice of his practice that he advertises prominently in Gente 2000 -- but he denied ever having partnered with Hierro. When asked why his office address is the same as MH Immigration Services, he says, "I just rented some space in that building." Key added that he rented the space "for about a month," though he couldn't remember which month that was.

Although several months have passed since he notified the UPL Committee about Hierro, Dubove says he has no idea what it did with his complaint. "I was really disappointed by how little response I got when I complained about Hierro," Dubove says. "I sent the thing in, and then I didn't hear anything back from them."

If Hierro's immigration business is not investigated by the legal community, that would be typical for the various law enforcement agencies that have the power to prosecute cases of immigration fraud.

"Some of this is a criminal matter involving theft, but if you go to the police and file a criminal complaint or if you go to the U.S. Attorney's Office, they'll tell you this is a problem Immigration Services or the State Bar should handle," attorney Parsons says. "All of these places have looked at the issue and agreed that it's illegal, unlawful, and that it should not be condoned, and yet they all point fingers, so you wind up with a vicious cycle."

That's not always because of a lack of effort.

Dallas lawyer James Blume is a member of the Texas Supreme Court's Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee. The committee, which Blume previously chaired, has the power to sue people who practice law without a license, and it is the state's strongest weapon in the battle against illegal immigration consultants.

Though he could not comment on what, if any, complaints the committee may have received about Hierro, Blume says immigration consultants in general are a problem the committee has battled for years. There are no records that track how many cases against immigration consultants the committee prosecutes, but Blume guesses that it handles fewer than 10 annually. Though the number sounds small, any one case can involve hundreds of clients who have been defrauded.

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