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

"If you were an unscrupulous person and wanted to prey upon illegal immigrants, being an immigration consultant is a perfect deal because you can take their money and they're utterly powerless to do anything when you cheat them," Blume says.

Blume says several factors limit the committee's ability to shut them down. A big factor is money.

The UPL committee and its local chapters are made up of volunteer attorneys who don't have enough time to respond to all the complaints they get. When they do investigate, they often can't gather enough evidence to pursue a case fully, usually because the victims either have been deported or don't want to appear in court as witnesses because they're afraid they will be deported.

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.

"The thing that's so sad about this is, you've got all these victims out there, and we don't know who they are," Blume says. "They're not willing to come forward, because they don't want La Migra shipping them out of the country."

Even if a local UPL committee can put together a solid case against a notario, it must first get approval from the state committee before it can file a civil lawsuit seeking to enjoin the notario from practicing. The process can take years and, by the time the case gets to court, the notarios are often long gone.

"You have to go through all of these traps before you get some kind of injunction to shut them down. If you do shut them down, they've made their wad and then they've gone on," Dubove says.

Paul Parsons agrees.

"Unfortunately, [the process] takes far too long because by the time any action occurs, oftentimes hundreds of people have been victimized and have lost valuable documents, possibly even their life savings to these individuals," Parsons says. "It's a very frustrating process, and there's a lot of vicious circles."

Catholic Charities' Vanna Slaughter compares the process to wiping out weeds. "It's an impossible task to get them all. If we focus on one practice, we might get a UPL case and a cease-and-desist letter. That's OK, but it's not going to stop them. They might close up shop for a while, but they spring up somewhere else. In terms of a lasting enforcement mechanism that will effectively eradicate the problem, I haven't seen it."

Like Blume, immigration attorney John Gibson says the biggest obstacle to nabbing notarios is convincing victims to come forward. Although INS officials could mitigate the problem by granting immunity to illegal aliens who testify against notarios, they seldom do.

"Their position is, they don't have time to fool with it and they're not interested," says Gibson, who is litigating three civil fraud cases against notarios in Dallas County. "They [the INS] don't cooperate with the Bar that I've ever seen. I don't think the INS cares."

INS spokesman Lynn Ligon says there are times the agency will display "compassionate conservatism" toward victims, but he concedes that the agency doesn't have the time or the money to go after notarios.

"Our big thrust is on the removal of criminal aliens. Although these people are swindling, they're not the same as somebody who is moving umpteen kilos of cocaine or murdering people," Ligon says. "You just got to work with a sense of priority. When you have limited resources on both ends, then you have to go where you're going to get the most out of your resources."

When asked whether she would testify against Marisa Hierro were she ever to come under any legal scrutiny, Alejandra pauses.

"I don't know," she says, and sighs. "I'm very upset about this."

Earlier this summer, Alejandra says, she was willing to speak to State Bar investigators until her new attorney informed her of the risks. She wants Hierro to be stopped, but she's not willing to risk being separated from her home and family.

"If I can be sure they won't deport me, then I will go for sure," Alejandra says.

Fernando says he is aware of the danger he'd face if he ever told U.S. authorities about his experiences with Hierro, but he believes that someone must step forward.

"There's a lot of people who are afraid to voice what has been done to them because of a fear of being deported," Fernando says. "A lot of people cannot even afford to eat because they're making payments to people like her."

Speaking through a translator, Fernando says he'd risk deportation, but only if he could be assured that his testimony would make a difference. To back up his words, Fernando has kept a record of his business transactions with Hierro and informed Mexican Consulate employees where he can be reached. The reason, he says, is simple: "I want justice to be served."

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