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Hispanics and the law

Legal system challenged by growing Latino population

Earlier this year, Madison County Sheriff Toby Trowbridge told a State Senate panel that his officers were picking up illegal immigrants nearly on the hour. Trowbridge told lawmakers these extra bookings were creating an extraordinary burden on his department.

Now the question is can the legal system handle the new caseload? And will these detainees and other Hispanics, both documented and undocumented, receive fair treatment under the law?

Language is an obvious issue. Several attorneys interviewed for this story report little problems with the language barrier when representing Hispanics. Still, it is an issue considering the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate of Mississippi’s Hispanic population in 2009 was 2.5 percent, up more than a half-percent from its 2006-2008 estimate of 1.9 percent.

“I’ve had several Hispanic clients and have had good relationships with each of them. Language can be a problem, but most have some family member that is fluent in English and they do the translating. And I speak a little Spanish, as well,” said Tupelo attorney David Butts, who pointed out that all of his clients have been legal immigrants. “I represented one all the way through trial and verdict in a very rural county and got a very good result. The client hit a prominent businessman’s bull in the road and was seriously injured; all during my representation his wife referred to the bull as ‘El Toro Grande!’”

Jackson attorney Jeffery Reynolds said, “I know there is a lot of concern nationally about the growing Hispanic population, particularly the illegals, but here in Mississippi I personally have seen zero impact from it on the cases I handle, which are quite various. In places where it is an issue, the obvious solution to me is better education for our Hispanic citizens, and for all children, for that matter.”

Mississippi’s schools of law report they are taking steps to make sure their graduates are more educated and better prepared to offer solid counsel to Hispanics.

“One thing I would like for the law school to do is to work with the faculty on campus who teach Spanish,” said Richard Gershon, dean of the University of Mississippi School of Law. “I think that Spanish proficiency will be an important skill for lawyers in Mississippi as the Hispanic population grows.”

The Mississippi College School of Law has augmented its curriculum and its recruiting efforts to ensure its graduates are “Hispanic-friendly.”

“An obvious factor in representing Hispanics is the language issue,” said Jim Rosenblatt, dean of MC Law. “When speaking with undergraduate students I stress the importance of cultural awareness and the benefit of acquiring proficiency in other languages. In my view, knowledge of Spanish or another language is helpful to a candidate competing for admission to our school.”

But language is just one of the issues. There are cultural differences that can breed client suspicion and fear.

MC Law now offers such courses such as Immigration Law and Latin America Comparative Law, including a new summer study program in Mexico.

Gio Diaz, president of the Law Student Bar Association at MC Law, was a member of the inaugural Mexico study class, and he got a firsthand take on some of the cultural differences that can create barriers to solid attorney-client relations.

“All U.S. jurisdictions are based on common law,” said Diaz, who formerly worked for an Atlanta law firm whose client base was 90 percent Spanish-speaking. “However, Latin America is based in civil law. This has a huge affect when immigrants come to the U.S. They are totally unfamiliar with our legal system — and extremely vulnerable.”

Another cultural difference cited as a growing problem is the “notario.” Notarios in Latin America are the equivalent of U.S. notary publics, with one exception. Notarios receive some legal training, and thus are looked to with trust as legal experts by Hispanics when seeking immigration documentation.

However, they are not licensed to practice law in the U.S. Tupelo attorney M. Gabriela Ungo, who practices in the area of immigration law, said Hispanics gravitate to notarios after arriving in the U.S., and receive unequal service from them.

“(Notarios) speak Spanish, and they don’t charge as much as an attorney,” said Ungo, who added that 80 percent of Hispanics who come to her are undocumented.

She said it is not just the notarios that are misrepresenting clients. Ungo cited one Mississippi attorney, who she declined to identify, that was actively marketing to Hispanics and was not offering sound legal advice. She said too many Hispanics are “getting robbed, basically.”

The courts, too, are having to adapt to the growing Hispanic population. For the past several years, the state court system has been working to implement an interpreter certification program. Kevin Lackey, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said Mississippi is behind, challenged by lack of funding and staff.

Still, he hopes the new certification program, which is being modeled after the Tennessee’s program, is in place within a year.


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