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Victims in the shadows

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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.

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley