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."