Victims in the shadows
"I don't want my money back," Alejandra says, closing her front door and locking it. The lock makes a metallic clank that echoes through this spare Dallas apartment adorned with framed prayers and family portraits. "I just want these people to stay away from me."
Alejandra has lived peaceably, but illegally, in Dallas since 1982, when she was 11 years old, and the one thing she wants more than anything else is to become a U.S. citizen. To this 28-year-old Mexican national, being granted legal status seems only just: Her mother lives here legally, as do her four siblings and, more important, her 6-year-old son.
"I don't feel like I can go back to Mexico and start my life over. I don't know anyone there. Everything is strange. There are poor people here, but being poor in Mexico is much worse. I cannot go back," Alejandra says. "If I don't fix my life, I will be living here like a shadow."
"Alejandra" -- who spoke on condition that her real name was not published -- has long lived with the anxiety that she might be deported, but it wasn't until she put her hopes of becoming a lawful resident into the hands of Marisa Hierro that her worry turned into wholesale fear.
Alejandra visited Hierro in December 1998, when Hierro was running an immigration consulting practice with Dallas attorney Catherine Shelton. Alejandra discovered the business in an advertisement the duo published in the Spanish-language newspaper El Extra.
During an initial consultation, Alejandra says, Hierro's confident bearing impressed her. Hierro sounded like a sharp, Spanish-speaking attorney, and Alejandra was convinced that Hierro could use her "contacts" with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to get Alejandra first a work permit, then permanent resident status within six months. Alejandra, who says she never dealt with Shelton, agreed to pay her firm $3,000, beginning with a $1,000 down payment. She thought she had bought an end to nearly two decades of uncertainty. For that, Alejandra would have paid almost anything.
At the time, Alejandra didn't realize that Hierro was not an attorney. She also didn't know that under INS rules she was not eligible for a "green card" granting her permanent residency status until three more years had passed -- a fact any competent immigration attorney could have told her after briefly reviewing her case.
As the months passed, Alejandra began to worry when the papers Hierro had promised never showed up and her repeated attempts to reach Hierro failed. Then, last April, Alejandra called Shelton's office and learned that Hierro had left to set up her own practice. Later that day, Hierro told Alejandra that Shelton had taken her money and that, if she wanted it back, she would have to file a complaint with the State Bar of Texas.
Assuming Shelton was the guilty party, Alejandra says, she drafted with Hierro's help a complaint accusing Shelton of professional misconduct. Then Alejandra signed a new contract with Hierro. As part of the deal, Alejandra says, Hierro said she would continue to process Alejandra's immigration case and use the refund from Shelton to cover the costs.
That was another lie.
"After I filed the complaint against Shelton, [Hierro] started calling and demanding payments," Alejandra says. Hierro told her, "I want to help you, but you have to bring me more money."
Alejandra gave Hierro an additional $250, but Hierro wanted more. When Alejandra couldn't pay, she says, Hierro threatened to stop processing her case. When that didn't work, Alejandra says, Hierro threatened to inform the INS of her illegal status. Thinking the INS would soon come for her, Alejandra fled.
"I spent some days at my aunt's house," Alejandra says. "The first few days I was scared. I never felt that afraid before, that someone was going to come and take us."
Alejandra didn't begin to feel safe again until December, when she read in the newspaper that Hierro and her husband, Michael, had been gunned down by two masked assailants outside their Rowlett home. The ambush left Michael dead and Hierro wounded.
Alejandra says she wasn't surprised when she later read that Shelton and her estranged husband, Clint, had been named as suspects in the attack, and that the attack may have been the result of a falling-out between the two women over their immigration practice.
"You know, in some countries they take your hand if you get caught stealing," she says. "When I read that Marisa had her hand shot off, I didn't like to see that, but I was thinking that was justice."
Reports that the Sheltons were suspects in the Hierro ambush stunned the Dallas legal community, where talk of Catherine Shelton's criminal background and speculation about her possible involvement in the attack continue to be fodder for gossip among her colleagues.
The scandal began hours after the attack, when a wounded Hierro fingered the Sheltons as her two masked assailants; their voices, she told police, were recognizable. Police later searched the Sheltons' home and garbage, where they recovered hair samples, shotgun shells, and a pair of purple men's underwear that appeared to have been converted into a mask.
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.
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."
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."
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.
"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."
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.
At first, Key told the Observer that Hierro was "just an employee" at Shelton's law firm who quit because she found out about Shelton's criminal background, which includes a felony conviction for shooting her ex-boyfriend, former Houston Post reporter Gary Taylor.
Later, Key confirmed that he had helped defend Hierro against allegations made by several clients who told a local Hispanic television station that Hierro was stealing money intended to pay for legal representation from Shelton. Key argued that Shelton took the clients' money and failed to represent them.
The Observer, however, has learned that Hierro's work with Shelton on immigration cases was far more extensive than Key initially claimed and that Key's own involvement with Hierro may extend beyond an attorney-client relationship.
Some of the documents the Observer has gathered, including copies of money-order receipts bearing what appears to be Shelton's signature, suggest that Shelton was profiting from immigration cases. But the documents and Hierro's ex-clients also support Shelton's contention that Hierro spearheaded the duo's immigration business and later duplicated the business in the West End as president of her own company.
Shelton declined to speak with the Observer, but a description of her relationship with Hierro is contained in a four-page letter that her attorney Steven Lee wrote to the State Bar last July. At the time, the Bar was investigating complaints about Shelton's immigration practice made by former clients, including a woman who later signed a contract for legal representation with Hierro at MH Immigration Services.
"In about September of 1998, Ms. Hierro suggested an expansion of the law practice to include immigration services. The general concept and pitch was that Ms. Hierro, in previous employment, had developed experience in immigration matters," Lee wrote. "The overall idea was that Ms. Hierro and support staff would perform immigration consultant tasks."
According to Lee, unhappy clients soon began to call Shelton with complaints about their cases, and Shelton tried to resolve the problem by telling Hierro to refer complicated cases to outside lawyers who specialize in immigration law. But that didn't work. In March 1999, when Lee says Shelton tried to rein in Hierro, Hierro abruptly quit, taking her support staff and the immigration files with her. Afraid that Hierro might have violated federal laws, Shelton told the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office about her experience with Hierro.
Lee further claims that Hierro soon began writing Shelton's clients on Shelton law-office letterhead, "telling them that in order to obtain a refund of their fees they should come meet with Hierro at her office," where Hierro helped them draft complaints about Shelton, allegedly charging them $75 for the effort.
Lee did not respond to messages left by the Observer, but Alejandra confirms part of his story: She says Hierro pressured her into filing a complaint against Shelton to get a refund that Hierro would use to continue Alejandra's case.
"Marisa said, if you don't file a complaint with the State Bar, Ms. Shelton will call Immigration," says Alejandra, who never dealt directly with Shelton on any immigration matters. It was only later, when Hierro herself threatened to report her to the INS because she refused to give her more money, that Alejandra concluded she had been duped.
Attorney R. Michael Thomas, who left Shelton's practice shortly after the immigration business took off, affirms that Hierro was the brains behind it and that Hierro later helped about 30 clients file complaints against Shelton.
"Marisa is a very bright, resourceful lady," Thomas says. "Her big thing was that she set up an immigration practice. She'd help do the marketing, the paperwork. She had some software that she'd voluntarily brought into the firm. She was a master at getting people into the office and getting their money. I thought it was OK for her to do what she was doing on her own. I really did."
Thomas may have believed that what Hierro did was OK, but Texas law is less generous. Filling out INS forms clearly constitutes the practice of law, according to court precedents that have been in effect for 15 years, says attorney Paul Parsons, who for years has monitored rogue notarios and unethical attorneys who operate immigration scams.
"Just knowing which forms to select and file and whether or not to file them involves legal judgments," Parsons says. When unsupervised legal assistants or independent notarios fill out INS forms, Parsons says, they are effectively practicing law without a license.
At the same time, the State Bar of Texas could possibly hold Shelton responsible for Hierro's behavior and either suspend or revoke her law licenses.
"If the non-lawyer is doing all the work and the lawyer really isn't involved at all, that can be aiding and abetting the unauthorized practice of law," Parsons says. "The lawyer is responsible for supervising directly the non-attorney employees."
Evidently, that was the issue that State Bar investigators raised last summer, according to the letter Lee wrote last July. In the letter, Lee acknowledged that Shelton could be held liable for clients who were wronged by Hierro's work, but he argued that Shelton didn't know of or sanction Hierro's activities.
"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.
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.
"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.
"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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