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Ana is a 29-year-old Salvadoran woman who wrings her hands when she speaks. Her gold teeth peek through her shy smile. Although she emigrated from El Salvador when she was 15 years old, she speaks no English. Ana has come to the D.C. Employment Justice Center’s weekly legal clinic seeking back pay: She was fired as a hotel housekeeper when she was seven and a half months pregnant. Speaking through bilingual EJC attorney Karen Minatelli, Ana says that on the day she was fired, her employer began shouting at her. ” ‘Why are you yelling at me? What’s the problem?’ ” Ana says she asked in Spanish. “ But I didn’t really understand,” she admits. Ana is one of thousands of D.C.-area clients whose lack of English skills has forced legal service providers to seek attorneys and staff who speak Spanish and a host of other languages. Most of these organizations serve thousands of clients a year with fewer than 10 lawyers on staff. For instance, the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) has only one staff lawyer to provide services to nearly 4,000 people a year. Language access has long been a pressing issue in legal services, but, until recently, the need for translators had gone largely neglected. The surge in the region’s immigrant population and lobbying by the D.C. Language Access Coalition has started to change that. The link between language and legal rights has finally caught the attention of both the D.C. Bar and the government. The foreign-born community’s growth was quick, recent, and large-scale, according to reports from the Brookings Greater Washington Research Program. Nearly half of the area’s foreign-born population emigrated after 1990. While the District has a higher percentage of English-speaking immigrants than many other cities, the population of those with limited English skills has increased from 6 percent to 9 percent since 1990. The area’s immigrants, though mainly Hispanic, speak more than 100 languages and make up 17 percent of the region’s total population, the reports say. Although the District offers as many as 25 different legal service providers — some with year-long waiting lists — it’s nearly impossible to know for certain how many people are quietly going without legal help due to lack of language skills. “A lot of legal aid groups don’t see the traffic, so they don’t see the demand,” says Jayne Park, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center (APALRC). Of course, a problem with English is not the only reason immigrants hesitate to seek legal help. Sometimes it’s because they are undocumented, victims of domestic violence, or simply unaware of the services available, providers say. And for some who escaped oppressive political regimes, “the notion of equal access, free legal services, individual rights, and civil liberties is beyond comprehension,” says Eric Kleiman, communications director of the Legal Services Corp. BETTER ACCESS Last fall, the D.C. Bar Foundation released a civil legal services report that recommended that the legal community come up with new ways to improve language access. Since then, the D.C. Bar and the government have made formal inroads into addressing the problem. The D.C. Bar’s Pro Bono Program created a Language Access Subcommittee, including Hispanic Bar Association President Brigida Benitez, D.C. Court of Appeals Judge Vanessa Ruiz, Department of Justice attorney Scott Damelin, and Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson special counsel Karen Grisez. Benitez, who is also a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, quickly put her weight behind a bilingual legal clinic. Building on the bar’s existing monthly advice and referral clinics, the subcommittee partnered in May with CARECEN and legal and social services organization Ayuda to hold a pilot Spanish-speaking clinic at Calvary Bilingual Multicultural Learning Center, near D.C.’s large Hispanic neighborhoods. It brought 20 private and government attorneys, interpreters, and paralegals. Judge Ruiz notes that some lawyers were apprehensive about giving legal advice outside their areas of expertise. Immigrants often come with a hodgepodge of problems involving immigration, domestic violence, employment, and family law issues. “Once [the lawyers] do it, they feel good about it, and they know they’ve really helped someone,” Ruiz adds. The subcommittee has also created a volunteer interpreter/translator registry, maintained by Ross, Dixon & Bell. The registry offers resources for attorneys who must communicate with clients who don’t speak English. The subcommittee began recruiting for the registry in early May by reaching out to the Hispanic Bar, the D.C. Consortium of Legal Service Providers, and pro bono partners, says D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program attorney Margaret Duval. So far, their outreach efforts have garnered 16 volunteers — four attorneys, five legal assistants, and a handful of law students. “We’re thrilled that each one of those 16 people signed up,” says Duval. “It’s a gradual process.” One of the biggest barriers for attorneys, acknowledges Duval, is the time commitment, as well as the high level of foreign language fluency, required for this kind of work. Indeed, even Denise Gilman, Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project director for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, says that the time commitment has made her hesitate. “I haven’t signed up for it yet,” Gilman says. “People are so overwhelmed with what they’re already doing in the community.” Local legal service providers and the D.C. Bar are not the only forces pushing for change. The D.C. Council has also lent a hand: In April, it passed the Language Access Act, which mandates that government entities provide written and oral translation of materials into various foreign languages depending on the particular community’s needs. APALRC’s Park says legal services providers got involved in the D.C. Language Access Coalition because they were facing pressure to supply interpreters. Many government agencies lack any kind of oral or written translation capabilities. The agencies, and the non-English-speaking immigrants, have turned to the legal service providers for help. The District is one of the first cities in the country — after Oakland, Calif., and New York City — to pass such a law. “I think that one of the greatest things the city can do for Latinos and other language minorities is have their services available,” says Saul Solorzano, executive director of CARECEN. While many legal service organizations say that they mainly need bilingual lawyers — because lawyers who speak the client’s language can develop a deeper rapport with the client — interpreters can also help fill language access needs and offer cultural interpretation as well. APALRC’s Legal Interpreter Project provides interpreters whose job it is to alert the lawyer to cultural taboos. For example, in some Asian cultures, discussing income or divorce with a stranger is frowned upon. “If the attorney is saying something that’s clearly inappropriate, it’s the role of the interpreter to tell them it’s inappropriate,” says Park. That expanded role can backfire. Park believes that interpreters must be well-trained because “there are so many instances when an interpreter could overstep their boundaries,” such as by offering legal advice. THE ANSWER While both are important, the efforts of the Language Access Subcommittee and the passage of the Language Access Act are also just the beginning, say observers. Language access issues, says Equal Justice consultant Julia Gordon, are like most other big-picture problems: The need is enormous, and the long-term strategy is missing. Every legal services provider, says Gordon, is continually choosing between helping clients and implementing reform. It’s hard to focus on reform when clients come in with urgent needs today. The D.C. Bar’s Duval notes that budget restrictions also push many providers to plan only one year at a time. Gordon also believes that communication between law firms and providers could be better. Because firms often see their time and money donations as gifts, they may give insufficient thought to the actual needs of specific providers. Sometimes providers have to scramble to find a place for volunteers to work or to set up a program for them. But because providers depend on the good will of the law firms and do not want to appear ungrateful, Gordon says, they are not likely to speak up. The providers and the bar are prompting the wider legal community to think creatively about how to solve the language access problem. The most pressing need, they say, is for law firms to assist or provide more long-term resources specifically to support bilingual attorneys and qualified interpreters. But providers could also step up their efforts, by hiring more bilingual attorneys and law students. Both firms and providers could implement pro bono programs to make better use of law firm volunteers who do speak multiple languages. Several attorneys noted the need for broader types of assistance. Though not directly related to language access, certain actions, they suggest, may help relieve some of the workload. Firms could provide mentors and technical assistance. This can be done by creating an “expertise bank” — a list of attorneys who are willing to provide legal advice, either through an organization or a listserv. Firms could also take on longer-term cases, such as family law cases. Gordon suggests that something as simple as strategizing on what types of cases would be best suited for providers, and which for firms, would improve overall efficiency. TIPPING POINT “I feel like we’re collectively reaching a tipping point, where we realize we need to provide better language services, we need to provide innovative models to efficiently service our clients,” says Gilman of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. “It’s difficult because it’s new for most of us.” For those who do volunteer, like Arlus Stephens of the three-person D.C. office of Davis Cowell & Bowe, volunteering is “a grounding experience.” Working at the D.C. Employment Justice Center, he says, is “always a reminder of what’s happening down on the ground floor: real people living real lives with a lot of hard breaks.”

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