Victims in the shadows

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"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.

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley