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Humorists such as Garrison Keillor may portray the state’s residents as a homogeneous group of Lutherans sitting around ice fishing, but a closer look at Minnesota reveals that not every Gopher is a blond. One of the largest groups adding spice to the state’s mix in recent years is the Latino community, the population of which has doubled in each of the last two decades. Like most new groups, it has distinctive needs in several aspects of daily life, not least of which includes the legal arena. Salvador M. Rosas and Arcelia Romo-Perez, two young lawyers working in legal services, see common threads beyond the central issue of language among the legal needs of the burgeoning Latino community. In 1981, Rosas and Romo-Perez helped form Centro Legal, Inc., to address these recurring needs in a systematic way. Centro Legal is the state’s only nonprofit legal services agency designed to serve the Latino community. Many Latinos are immigrants with limited employment and English skills. Many have grown up in a different political and cultural environment. Rosas and other lawyers serving the Latino community see the same themes repeated again and again: low-wage workers who do not receive their proper pay; overpriced, inadequate housing that remained unrepaired despite fix-up orders; unpaid child support; and disputed disability benefit applications. And, of course, whenever there is an immigrant population there are problems with the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service. Rosas, who has been a Ramsey County, Minn., district judge since 1990, said the mission began when there was a concern in the 1980s that the Reagan administration would cut back funding for legal services programs. He also said that, at the time, there were concerns about restrictions on the types of cases that programs receiving public funding could handle. He and Romo-Perez felt they could better serve the community by being less dependent on public funding for their projects. Centro Legal’s mission is limited to handling civil cases for a low-income clientele. The group is barred from representing people whose income exceeds federal poverty guidelines by more than 87 percent. Six out of every seven clients represented by Centro Legal have a family income below $20,000 per year. Immigration cases make up just over half of Centro Legal’s caseload. Matters include family-based visa petitions, asylum and temporary relief petitions, applications for permanent residency, and detention and deportation defense. Over the years, the center’s immigration practice group has become so proficient that the attorneys advise the immigration defense bar on related matters in addition to directly handling cases themselves. A recent example of how this expertise can make a difference in people’s lives was seen last winter, when the INS was trying to deport housekeepers who had been fired from their jobs at a Minneapolis hotel. The hotel fired the workers for trying to form a union and then reported them to the INS for being illegal aliens. When Centro Legal became involved in the case, the workers were being detained by the INS, which had initiated deportation proceedings. Not only did the center’s lawyers help obtain a cash settlement for the undocumented workers, they convinced the INS to let the workers stay — and work — for another two years. Only one worker, Anado Flores, had to leave the country, and that was because he had previously entered this country illegally, and even he was satisfied with the work that had been done on his behalf. A logical next step for many people who successfully navigate the immigration process is to apply for citizenship. Centro Legal offers a series of workshops for interested clients. The first workshop advises participants of the pluses and minuses of applying for American citizenship, the risks that may be involved, and the legal requirements. The second workshop, which is limited to eligible candidates, helps clients complete the necessary forms and compile the required documents. Although the focus of the Naturalization Project is self-help, Centro Legal provides direct legal representation in difficult or complex cases, on an as-needed basis. Nearly all eligible participants who have applied through the project succeeded in becoming U.S. citizens. The second-biggest part of the center’s caseload, comprising more than one out of three cases, involves family matters, including divorce, paternity, custody and support, and domestic violence. As critical as these areas are in any legal setting, especially among the poor, these matters take on a special, culturally sensitive nature within an immigrant community. Centro Legal must educate service providers, law enforcement agents and the court system of the cultural issues involved, while remaining sensitive to the needs of the client, who is often a financially dependent wife and mother. The so-called typical poverty-law cases — housing problems, unpaid wages, consumer disputes, and applying for Supplemental Security Income benefits — make up the smallest of the three slices of the center’s caseload. But Centro Legal also gets involved in areas that are only apparent to the center’s staff because of the cultural sensitivity they need to do their job. In many Spanish-speaking countries, notaries are quasi-lawyers who help people prepare legal documents. Several years ago, the center’s staff noted a growing number of allegations that notaries public were preying on Latino immigrants by charging hundreds, even thousands of dollars, to prepare documents and give advice. The center told lawmakers of the problem, and state Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, sponsored a bill to counteract this unscrupulous activity. The key to the group’s success is the quality of the service it offers, and the key to being able to offer quality legal services is being able to recruit top attorneys. This would seem to be a problem for chief legal officer Jorge Saavedra, but it is not. “Our attorneys could work anywhere else for twice as much,” said Saavedra, whose family wound up in Bismarck, N.D., after fleeing Chile following the assassination of President Salvador Allende. But, Saavedra added, the opportunity to be a rising star, a “superlawyer,” in one of the center’s practice groups is a reward in itself. The practice groups are the center’s solution to providing services. The eight attorneys become experts in their respective fields, and they create a knowledge base so the office can stretch its limited professional resources. Every attorney at the center has an obligation to practice “preventive” law, Saavedra said. This includes publishing articles in the statewide Latino press, presenting forums on the area of their expertise, and participating in workshops, such as for prospective citizens, whereby Centro Legal clients learn to help themselves, and each other. The center’s office is located in St. Paul, and four out of five of the 2,400 clients served last year reside in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Centro Legal’s eight attorneys handle as many matters as possible by mail and phone, and have office hours for specific legal areas. But Saavedra said the center’s work would not be possible without pro bono contributions from lawyers throughout the state, from sole practitioners to large firms. Like every immigrant community before it, the Latino community is evolving, Saavedra said, adding that the vitality that immigrants bring with them, and the economic development that flourishes in such a climate, are transforming the face of the Twin Cities area.

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