Reaching out: Bars help recent immigrants understand and use the legal system

Volume 30 Number 5

By

Drawn by good jobs, a moderate climate, and mountainous terrain reminiscent of their native Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand, some 15,000 people of Hmong heritage live in western North Carolina.

But as Tong Yang, executive director of the United Hmong Association of North Carolina, knows, understanding American culture and law can be challenging for immigrants. Just ask the Hmong man who lost his house to his children, he says.

The man, says Yang, thought he took possession of his wife’s home after she died. While the couple were married in a Hmong ceremony, they had no marriage license and were not legally wed in North Carolina. As a result, the home went to their children, who evicted the man.

The man belatedly tried fighting the move in court, but after a while, Yang says, “he just gave up and moved out.” It is not the first tale of legal woe Yang has heard, and he expects it won’t be the last.

“With the language barrier and culture we have, [Hmong] people just don’t have much exposure to the American legal system,” Yang says. “The legal system is something we’re having a hard time dealing with.”

It’s an increasing issue nationwide, as immigration continues to swell—and not just in the urban centers that have traditionally attracted immigrants. While many bar associations in those areas have offered programs and services to address the needs of their immigrant communities, it’s somewhat new ground for associations in places such as Nebraska, North Carolina’s Piedmont region, and Amish Country in Pennsylvania.

Many bars are responding to the challenge by reaching out to their immigrant communities. Even some of those bars that have a lot of experience with this type of outreach are adding some new programs and services in response to a diversifying and changing immigrant population. It’s a necessity, many bars say, in order to fulfill one of their primary missions of offering access to legal services to everyone in their communities.

Big population shifts

After a slight decline in the number of immigrants in the first few years of this decade, immigration numbers are creeping higher. And what may be most intriguing in those numbers is the percentage of immigrants who are not settling in the “Big 6” states of California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey.

The percentage of immigrants settling outside the Big 6 and into 22 “new growth” states—primarily in the Southeast, Mountain West, and Midwest—grew from 19 percent in 1992 to 25 percent in 2004, according to the Pew Hispanic Research Center. Between 1990 and 2000, six southern states with significant rural populations saw their Hispanic populations grow more, by percentage, than any other state except Nevada, according to the Pew Center. North Carolina saw an increase of 394 percent; Arkansas, 337 percent; Georgia, 300 percent; Tennessee, 278 percent; South Carolina, 211 percent; and Alabama, 208 percent.

An example is Gordon County, Ga., a rural county of about 48,000 people 45 minutes northwest of Atlanta. Between 1990 and 2000, the county’s Hispanic population shot up sixteenfold, from 200 to 3,200, according to the Pew Center.

The main reason? A strong supply of manufacturing, agriculture, and service-related jobs. That is precisely what is changing the demographics in Nebraska, says Jane Schoenike, executive director of the Nebraska State Bar Association.

“Since 2000, we’ve had a huge explosion of the Spanish-speaking population because of the meat-packing plants,” she says. “A lot of these plants are in smaller communities. We have towns with 10,000 to 20,000 people who need interpreters in the courts.”

The influx prompted the bar in 2001 to form a Minority and Justice Task Force to examine issues of ethnic bias and discrimination. A short time later, the task force became a full-fledged committee.

The committee, with assistance from state agencies, has implemented or will soon implement several initiatives aimed at non-English-speaking communities. Among them: publishing free legal brochures in Spanish; publishing a Uniform Advisement of Rights for defendants in Spanish and three other languages; adding bilingual staff for legal referral services; training courtroom interpreters in several different languages, including Sudanese, Arabic, Bosnian, and Hmong; and posting bilingual information on the bar’s Web site.

The governor also declared 2006 “The Year of the Juror,” Schoenike says, in an attempt to reach out to the non-English-speaking community and make them more aware of Nebraska’s legal system. Jury pools and juror qualification forms were also updated in order to get Hispanics into the pools, where they have been lacking. The city of Grand Island, for example, whose population of about 43,000 is about 16 percent Hispanic, according to census figures, had no Hispanics in its jury pool, Schoenike says.

There has been widespread acceptance of the changes to accommodate the shifting population, Schoenike says. “Nebraskans are welcoming people,” she notes. “We haven’t had any major problems.”

Making inroads

While the North Carolina Bar Association has had programs in place for several years to reach out to its growing Hispanic population, the bar and legal service providers had few resources in place to deal with the burgeoning Hmong population. Only Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California now have more people of Hmong descent than North Carolina.

Complicating matters is the Hmong dialect. Straight translations are often imprecise or just don’t translate at all, according to Tong Yang. Avid hunters and fishers, many Hmong found themselves fined or arrested because they did not have the required state permits—which were not available in Hmong. Incidents like that, Yang says, led to mistrust of the legal system.

That is where the NCBA stepped in—almost by accident. Ken Harris, a Charlotte attorney and member of the bar’s Young Lawyers Division, was looking to get involved in YLD activities last summer when he spoke to the division’s president, Nikole Mariencheck, about a National Geographic article she had read about Hmong settling in western North Carolina, and the problems they were having with legal services.

Not long afterward, Harris was heading a committee looking into the issue and began communicating with Yang. It soon became clear to Harris that “this was not going to be a one-year committee,” he says. “There are one or two attorneys in the whole area who can assist the Hmong, and that’s absurd.”

What followed was a three-step plan for Harris’ committee to go with Yang into the Hmong community and open a dialogue with them, alleviate their mistrust of the legal system, and help them solve their legal issues. Ways the committee has addressed or will soon address these goals include meeting with Hmong leadership, holding an “ask a lawyer” legal workshop, and translating state legal publications into Hmong.

The workshop, held in March at the United Hmong Association of North Carolina’s headquarters, was particularly insightful for Harris and the dozen NCBA attorneys, as well as the 100 or so Hmong who attended.

“I believe that we really made headway with the community and opened up the Hmong people’s perception of the legal community,” Harris says. “Possibly more important, however, the great attendance by attorneys, young and old, was just as eye-opening.

“Many of the attorneys with whom I spoke were visibly swayed by the knowledge that they were having a direct impact on thawing the relations with the Hmong community, and that they were beginning to ensure the equal treatment of Hmong in North Carolina society.”

Yang says the meeting went a long way toward restoring some of the lost trust in the legal system among the Hmong, but more such gatherings are needed. “We’re trying to demystify the legal process and how the legal system works,” he says. “The key to learning is trust, and you can’t create trust simply by translating a brochure.”

An unexpected benefit

Like western North Carolina, Lancaster County, Pa., was an area that for years had seen little immigration. But the county’s position as the sixth largest poultry-producing area in the country has helped make it a magnet for immigrant workers, particularly Hispanics. Between 1980 and 2000, the county’s Hispanic population tripled from 9,000 to 27,000, growing from 2.5 percent of the county’s population to nearly 6 percent.

And the Lancaster Bar Association has gone out into the community to reach the underserved Hispanic community. The bar’s successful People’s Law School, designed to be a primer for the public in areas of law such as bankruptcy, civil rights, employment, and family law, was brought a few years ago from the bar’s offices to the Spanish American Civic Association’s headquarters in Lancaster.

“We felt that they would be more comfortable there, rather than coming to someplace they perceived as intimidating,” says Evelyn Sullivan, the bar’s executive director. “For the first time, they saw us as a resource.”

The bar has continued its outreach efforts by adding a bilingual staff member to its LRS line and running law-related spots on a regional Spanish-language radio station. Internally, the bar established a diversity task force—which later became a full committee—and began offering CLE on diversity, using excerpts from the ABA’s Valuing Diversity CLE program in an effort aimed primarily at the county’s largest law firms.

And the efforts are paying dividends, Sullivan says: The bar is getting more calls from Hispanics on its LRS lines, and, in an unexpected development, attracting more minority attorneys in the county to bar association events and meetings. “There are cultural differences, and they’re not right or wrong,” Sullivan notes. “They just exist, and we need to be more aware of them.”

New efforts in large metro areas, too

While smaller bar associations and those in areas not typically thought of as major centers for immigration have been quickly developing outreach efforts, many bars with long-standing programs are making changes and developing strategies to address shifts in immigrant populations.

“It is an economic issue for lawyers in high-rises and in the neighborhoods,” says Andrew Chirls, immediate past chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. “We’ve got an opportunity and an obligation to do more.”

In 2005, Chirls established the ad hoc Committee on Language Access to Courts to find ways to improve interpreting and translation services, particularly in landlord-tenant cases, where bilingual paperwork is now more readily available to help solve issues more quickly.

Like the Lancaster bar, the Philadelphia bar took its People’s Law School into immigrant communities, reaching not only Hispanics, but Russians and Poles for the first time, as well. Those events received widespread promotion and coverage through the native-language media in the communities, helping attract hundreds of

citizens.

“We had seven attorneys for Polish Language Law Day and 175 people showed up, and many of them spoke not a word of English,” Chirls says. “I had a client in Warsaw [Poland] call me up the next day and say, ‘What are you doing on page three of The Warsaw Gazette?’ ”

While professional interpreters were hired to coordinate press coverage, the bar relied mostly on volunteers to interpret and translate for its community activities. Also last year, the bar’s Real Property Section put together a project to make documents about basic real estate issues and use of the courts available in Spanish. The bar’s Legal Line, which makes referrals to the LRIS program, is now consistently available in Spanish and featured a Russian call-in night last year, as well. The bar also established CLE programs last year aimed at making more members aware of diversity and immigrant issues.

“We had to show the government and the public what we could do to make this a more immigrant-friendly city,” Chirls says. “I think we’ve created a closer connection between the immigrant communities and the bar.”

At the Bar Association of San Francisco, which won an ABA diversity award in 2005 for its outreach efforts, additions and fine tuning continue, says Kenneth Matejka of the bar’s LRIS

program.

In October, the bar expanded the Spanish-language content on its Web site by including a Spanish-language submittal form. Another new Web page in Chinese now directs Cantonese and Mandarin speakers to contact the bar by telephone, if necessary.

“We keep a full-time Mandarin speaker and several full-time Spanish speakers on staff at all times,” Matejka says. “When there is a vacancy in one of the bilingual positions, we advertise for bilingual candidates and make it a requirement for the job. We usually find ourselves with several good candidates to choose from.”

Taking legal action

While Rafael Sanchez, chair of the Indiana State Bar Association’s Latino Affairs Committee, does not discount the vital need for bars to go into immigrant communities, he says a bar’s public actions often speak volumes to those communities. Such was the case last year when the ISBA led a very public effort to prosecute notarios who were misrepresenting themselves among the Hispanic community.

In many Spanish-speaking countries, a notario is usually a well-respected person with a certain amount of legal training. In Indianapolis, as in several other cities nationwide, people who were notaries public according to state regulations billed themselves as notarios instead, though they lacked legal training and licensure. If a client mistakenly believes he or she is working with someone who is licensed to perform certain legal tasks, the results can be devastating.

Last December, the ISBA worked with the state’s attorney general to take action barring a prominent Indianapolis notario from doing legal business. “There was a lot of talk and a lot of coverage [in the Hispanic community], which highlighted the necessity of having the bar association step up,” Sanchez says. “That case helped the bar and the committee gain some of the credibility it needed.”

Next steps

But to continue reaching immigrant communities, regardless of where they came from, Sanchez and other bar and community leaders say more needs to be done to broaden the diversity of the bar itself and the legal community as a whole. Sanchez says there are so few Hispanic lawyers in Indiana that most don’t have the time to devote much to the bar association.

“It’s very tough for a non-Hispanic association to reach out and engage the Hispanic community,” Sanchez adds. “There are local bars trying to help, but I haven’t seen much success. We need to establish a network.”

The Lancaster Bar Association is working with law schools throughout Pennsylvania, as well as the 18 largest law firms in the county, to encourage minority graduates to consider coming to Lancaster County. The firms have agreed to carefully review the resumes of minority students in the hope that some might be swayed to come. To date, says Sullivan, one such minority candidate is working in the district attorney’s office.

The shortage of Hmong attorneys in North Carolina is also of concern to Yang. But he says his community’s budding relationship with the North Carolina Bar Association is cause for optimism.

“Hopefully, with help from people like Ken Harris and getting more public exposure, it will draw some attention,” Yang says. “We have to do a better job in telling our young people that they can have a good career as an attorney.”

“We have a long way to go,” Harris acknowledges, “but we are energized.” BL

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