Coalition aims to improve legal access for Latinos

Translation, educating agencies are priorities

February 04, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Concerned that Latinos face daunting language and cultural barriers in the legal system, local Hispanic activists have formed a group to lobby for better treatment by courts and social service agencies.

The Baltimore Latino Coalition for Justice will push for increased access to translators and for legislation making it a priority for government agencies to retain bilingual employees, said Beltran Navarro, an organizer. The coalition grew out of a December report by the Public Justice Center and CASA of Maryland, a Hispanic outreach group in Takoma Park, that concluded that Latino residents face obstacles in the legal arena.

The report said government agencies and legal service organizations should begin by letting immigrants know about their legal rights and available services. That is particularly important because recent changes in federal law make it easier to deport aliens, according to Patricia Chiriboga-Roby, a staff attorney for Immigration Legal Services, part of Catholic Charities of Baltimore.

Navarro said Baltimore's growing Latino community -- from 7,602 in 1990 to 45,972 in 1997 according to Census Bureau statistics -- is following the same path blazed by immigrant groups before them.

"Lots of [immigrants] came here speaking Italian and Polish," he said. "Some of them are now state senators. But it takes time for a person to learn English and be accustomed to the system. In the first generation, we should provide some amount of protection."

Among those protections should be better access to translators and forms printed in Spanish, Navarro and others said. He also would like to see agencies such as the city state's attorney hire Hispanics.

Francine Stokes, executive assistant to Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, questioned the need for more translators. She said criminal defendants can request an interpreter. Stokes, a prosecutor, said she knows of no cases when interpreters were unavailable.

"If I have a Hispanic defendant, the first question I ask is, `Do you speak English?' " she said. "In all cases where language is a barrier, resources are there. You just have to make sure the state understands."

Lawyer Raphael Santini, a member of the Maryland Hispanic Bar Association, said the quality and quantity of translators has improved in recent years. One lingering problem, he said, is that most court clerks do not speak Spanish.

Santini said there are "sensitivity issues" that courts and government agencies should understand. "Hispanic people who don't speak English have a tendency to say yes when they're asked questions, he said.

Blanca Picazo helps Baltimore Latinos navigate bureaucracies every day. She is a caseworker at Centro de la Comunidad in East Baltimore, which provides employment, health and legal assistance.

Picazo said she has encountered a host of problems, from Latinos seeking the return of immigration papers seized by police, to a Hispanic woman who was told she could lose custody of her young daughter if she received food stamps. She also said clients have complained about a lack of translators.

"I'm so used to people being treated unfairly," Picazo said. "For me, it's like the norm."

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