Consulate, nonprofits to provide legal aid to immigrants

Wage theft and run-ins with law enforcement are top concerns for families ‘living in the shadows’

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – It’s seven simple yet powerful words: “You have the right to remain silent.”

But that’s a phrase that many migrants who come to Melissa Lopez’s office have never heard of before. If they had, they would not be seeking help to avoid deportation or crushing another major legal problem.

“State law requires that a person show identification. But the migrants we see don’t know they have the right not to talk to the police; they think they are required to disclose all of their information,” said Lopez, the executive director of El Paso’s Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services. “Most of the time, Immigration doesn’t have the information they need to deport you, but if you talk and give them that information, then they will.”

Lopez and DMRS are partners with the Mexican Consulate in El Paso in a weeklong crusade to educate the immigrant community here about their legal rights in the United States. Such rights apply regardless of immigration status.

The second annual External Legal Advice Week begins Monday, June 5, online and in person at the consulate on 910 E. San Antonio St. The talks will address information about fighting deportation, retaining custody of a child, filing domestic violence complaints, and your rights as a victim or a defendant in a criminal case.

“The goal is to inform the Mexican community and workers in El Paso of their legal rights and provide referrals to legal services outside the consulate,” said Consul General Mauricio Ibarra Ponce de Leon. “This is the second (year) of the program and will take place in 50 American cities where we have consulates. This program already is increasing the number of Mexicans in the United States who are able to access lawyers whenever they need one.”

Last year’s legal rights education initiative reached 160,000 people online and at consulates in the US, Ibarra said. It also strengthened ties between the consulates and grassroots organizations in those communities.

“We value our partnership with the Mexican consulate, they are a key partner in supporting the immigrant community,” said Kenneth Ferrone, executive director of Catholic Charities of Southern New Mexico. “We provide all forms of immigration services from naturalization to asylum. We help victims of crime. We do it for free, if we can because we receive grants. (The consulate) provides us with some funding and a mobile van and we accompany them to Roswell, Artesia, and Hobbs.”

In Southern New Mexico, immigrant workers are often not paid or not paid in full by their employers, he said.

“We work closely with migrant farming communities. We see wage theft, no overtime pay, people get injured on the job and don’t get the treatment they need,” Ferrone said. “We work closely with the consulate to make sure they are paid. We will contact employers; we will contact the Labor Department. If someone is experiencing something that is not right or that is against the law, they should come to us” or the consulate.

Something “not right” can include other issues such as sexual harassment or consumer fraud. Consulate officials and their partners said the Spanish-speaking migrant community also lacks full awareness of their right to go to a civil court to demand, say, a refund for a used car that did not work properly.

“There is a culture of fear because of previous border enforcement. The narrative as our border tends to demonize the migrants that are coming in,” Ferrone said. “Unfortunately, many live in the shadows because they live in fear of (law enforcement) and they don’t know their full rights. We try to inform them of their rights and help those who are not treated with dignity.”

You can see a full schedule of events and summaries in English and Spanish, here.

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