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St. Petersburg Times

A Little Help, When Legalese Isn't So Easy


March 28, 2004
Copyright ©2004 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

Maria Gonzales has a problem with the rent.

Her tenant has not paid up in months.

Armed with papers and a desire to figure out what to do, Gonzales joined some 30 other central and south Americans for a free, Spanish-language legal advice information session at the YWCA-run Hispanic Outreach Center near downtown. Such sessions are held there two or three times per year.

Gonzales owns a home with an attached apartment. She speaks so-so English and says it's difficult to figure out which local lawyers will take on a Spanish-speaking client who doesn't have an awful lot of money.

Clearwater lawyer Ky Koch didn't mind giving up a few hours to help Gonzales. Neither did the other nine lawyers, students from the Hispanic Bar Association at Stetson University College of Law and volunteers with Gulfcoast Legal Services. All of them worked together to provide pro bono help to the city's immigrant community, regardless of a person's legal status.

The problems ranged from questions regarding no-compete contracts to women seeking to bring their children to the United States. Many of the issues are as simple as filling out a form. Others require more serious legal help.

But most are the sorts of things native English speakers can figure out how to do on their own. Problems occur because people from other countries might not grasp the subtleties of U.S. law.

"Immigration, child custody support, landlord-tenant issues, employment and homebuying,'' said Jane Helms, pro bono coordinator for Gulfcoast Legal Services. "Those are the largest needs. People are taken advantage of because the Hispanic population has a different culture and the laws are different in their countries.''

A key component of the free help is a promise to keep things secret from immigration authorities.

"What we're trying to do at this point is offer them some legal advice,'' said Helms. "We don't care if they're legal or illegal.''

Rosario Zamora, 28, of Actopan, Mexico, was one of those people. Zamora wants to bring her three children, who live in Mexico, to the United States.

She found no shame in asking for help.

"They just need green cards,'' said Zamora. "That's all.''

Arturo Perez, 45, of Clearwater, had a slightly different issue.

Originally from Mexico City, Perez drives a lunch truck. The rent on the truck and bills for the food are too high; he just wants to work elsewhere. But he signed a "no-compete'' document promising that he would not work for a competitor - without understanding the meaning of the English term. He came to the legal clinic for help.

"I need a job,'' said Perez. "I need a route. But these guys tell me that since I signed this, I can't work.''

Lawyers like Koch, working with student translators, don't mind giving up their hundreds-per-hour fees.

"It's the right thing to do,'' said Koch, a divorce lawyer. "Through this program I've helped 15 (people).''

As for the students, the work fulfills a 10-hour, legal pro bono graduation requirement.

Stetson Hispanic Bar Member Paul Suppicich worked as a translator for the few lawyers who did not speak Spanish. The students also help Gulfcoast Legal Services identify participants legal needs and separate them into groups.

"A lot of people just want to bring their families,'' said Suppicich, 42, a former English teacher for students who speak other languages. "One girl from Peru won the Lotto to get her residency, but she misses her mother and wants to bring her here.''

Odemaris Torres, 24, of Puerto Rico, is a third-year student who thinks it important for lawyers to be bilingual.

"I wanted to do something that helped other Hispanics,'' said Torres. "I had no idea that that this part of Florida had such a big Hispanic community.''

Gulfcoast Legal Services coordinates the event, where lawyers meet for at least a half hour with each client while at the YWCA. If a matter requires more attention, it's up to the lawyer and the client to schedule in-office time.

In all, some 30 or so adults showed up to get help. Previously, as many as 65 have attended.

Those numbers - large or small - don't matter as long as help is available, said Odilon Mesquite, vice president of the local Mexican Council.

"The people have many problems,'' said Mesquite. "We need this.''

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