New Era Hispanic Bar Association of Michigan prepares to embark on its 20th year

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By Mike Scott
Legal News

The Hispanic Bar Association of Michigan has grown from an organization with 20 members to one with more than 80 in less than four years. Now, as the Royal Oak-based bar association embarks on its 20th year of existence, its reach is extending further into the southeastern Michigan community.

The HBAM is involved in pro bono work, the mentoring of college students, providing college scholarships, fund-raising, and leadership activities. Recently, the HBAM has expanded on its partnership with the Latino Studies program at Wayne State University through charitable giving, student assistance, and informal career counseling as well as mentoring activities.

“We find that interacting with those students has been a great opportunity for us and many of the relationships our members have built with those students remains after (the semester) is over,” said HBAM President Lawrence Garcia, a partner with Turfe Garcia in Dearborn Heights.

Members work with students interested in a wide variety of fields, not just legal, according to Garcia, who will wrap up his four-year term as HBAM president next summer. They can help students find summer internships and jobs, and also have worked closely to help students in other majors, most notably nursing.

The HBAM has consistently worked on fund-raising efforts, annually focusing on a specific charitable organization. This year members have raised more than $5,000 for the Community Health & Social Services Center (CHASS) in Detroit. The Center provides provide affordable and high-quality health care and support services to Detroit residents in need with emphasis on the underserved African American and Latino populations in the inner city.

“We always have given back to a charitable cause over the holidays,” Garcia said.

One of the most popular programs initiated by the HBAM has been the establishment of toll-free help line (888-LLAMA-HB) that is used primarily by Spanish-speaking residents. It is designed to make it easier for residents whose first language is Spanish and have trouble seeking and securing legal services because of a language barrier. Many of the callers otherwise could not afford legal services, and if they could, they may not know where to get them, Garcia said.

The number of calls on that help line has steadily increased over the years, just as the membership has grown. Once residents understand that the 1-888 line is not part of a government-run effort, they generally are more willing to use it regularly, according to Garcia. Area Spanish-speaking residents commonly use that line for questions about such legal issues as immigration, worker’s compensation and family law issues. It is staffed by Spanish-speaking attorneys.

“I think there is a trust factor there that some area residents have struggled with,” Garcia said. “But they quickly come to trust (the benefits of the 1-888 help line).”

The HBAM and its members also have taken on a leadership role in the community, providing access for area residents to political leaders. The Hispanic Bar also has allowed those elected officials to better understand the needs of the community’s Hispanic population, Garcia said.

HBAM members, for example, sent out letters to various media outlets this summer that criticized the controversial immigration law signed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in April. The Hispanic Bar also has organized various events that have allowed residents to meet with Congressional, state, and mayoral candidates.

“We want to help leadership understand where Latinos stand on such issues but we want the dialogue to go both ways,” Garcia said. “We don’t preach a particular brand of politics. We really just want to keep residents informed.”

And the HBAM is involved in a wide range of pro bono activities. Each October, members provide free legal services as part of an organized effort. The last two years free legal services were provided to area residents at Detroit’s Holy Redeemer Catholic Church.

Growth has come steadily for the HBAM, which Garcia sees as a positive. As the Hispanic Bar gets more exposure, some of its events and efforts become more institutionalized, which helps provide stability and a sense of legitimacy to a wider audience. The annual holiday party each November is a well-attended event that also serves as a fund-raiser. And its work with Wayne State’s Latino Studies program continues to expose the HBAM to potential new members, donors, and sponsors.

“We want to make the efforts of the HBAM more than just the individual contributions of any one member,” Garcia said. “It’s important that we continue to build active partnerships and build upon a sense of strong goodwill with current and future members.”

Garcia, along with fellow officers David Maquera, Caterine Amaro and Alfredo Casab, and other members of the board of directors, hope to add more annual events. Roundtable discussions and meetings with elected officials and political candidates is one immediate goal, Garcia said. The HBAM also plans to host a black-tie celebration this coming year to celebrate the 20th anniversary.

One of the founding members of the HBAM was Judge Isidore Torres, who previously served on the 36th District Court and with the Wayne County Circuit Court. Torres has recently been a visiting judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals, and the Monroe and Lenawee County circuit courts.

“It would be a great thing to allow some of our founding members to celebrate what they have accomplished with a fun event in the coming months,” Garcia said. “It’s an effort and tradition we continue to build upon each year.”
 

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