Inland Empire's Rising Latino Population Turns To Free Legal Help
For many in California's quickest growing county, the Inland Empire Latino Lawyers Association is the last place to turn.
For others, it's the only place.
No matter the race, income, or legal status, all are welcome.
"We are able to do service for those people that not every organization can provide," said association director Monica Mar. "And especially out here — it's really needed."
In Riverside, where a record number of people continue to get eviction and foreclosure notices, the lawyers association provides free service to those who need it most.
And the latest census numbers say plenty need it.
According to the recently released census numbers, between 2000 and 2010, Riverside County grew by an unprecedented 41 percent, and saw a 78 percent surge in its Latino population.
In that decade, the lawyers association, which is run by a staff of only 4 ½ from a small office at the Cesar Chavez Community Center in Riverside, saw its number of clientele grow.
It has become a safe haven for low-income families and undocumented people.
While it does not provide legal representation, the non-profit organization does provide otherwise costly legal advisement to the area's poor and underprivileged residents, including the undocumented.
"It's the reason I got into this," Mar said.
For some in legal trouble, the costs are too high. For others, the papers too confusing, or language or legal status a barrier. That's where the lawyers association comes in, with a bilingual staff that sends out cases to a number of local lawyers who donate their time.
One such attorney is Jason Ackerman, of Best, Best & Krieger. Since 2006, he's donated about 300 hours to the association.
"Many [of us] got into this profession to help people," Ackerman said. "I feel as if the time I spend there is really appreciated by the clients that come through the door."
Ackerman recalls a recent case in which he represented a family of five, served an eviction notice by a landlord.
"The conditions in which they were living, by all accounts, were deplorable," he said.
Yet, when they complained to the landlord, they were denied service and served an eviction notice. Ackerman negotiated a settlement for the family in unlawful detainment court, including $3,000 in damages. All back-rent due was dropped, and the landlord even paid Ackerman $500 incurred for representation fees.
Eviction cases are among the most common at the lawyers association.
In 2007, at the start of the recession, the county foreclosure rate jumped by a meteoric 191 percent. By 2010, it had the second-highest foreclosure rate in the state. One in every 14 homes received either a mortgage or auction sale notice, or were repossessed by a bank.
In her five years at the association, Claudia Saldivar, client information manager, has seen it first-hand, fielding countless calls from frustrated homeowners.
Saldivar started as a volunteer through a program at UC Riverside. She never intended to stay this long, but "they haven't been able to get rid of me," she joked.
"You have this population that's huge, and they're really unrepresented," Saldivar said.
"Part of it is, the need calls me. If there's something I can do for it, if I can help in any way to alleviate this, then I want to be a part of that," she said.
Every Monday and Wednesday, the association holds clinics, where county residents can stand in line and wait to be seen. This Wednesday, 13 showed up for help, but only six to eight could be seen.
Enrique and Maria Tapia were among those who arrived early enough. They came to contest a suit from a creditor.
"I've been out of a job for more than two years," Enrique Tapia said. "Most of the people came here because we don't have the resources to pay a lawyer."
Like many, the Tapias came to the area in 1999 due to the low housing prices.
"A lot of these clients, you look at them, you see them and know there's no way you can afford a mortgage of $300,000, you never have made the money to be able to pay for it," Saldivar said. "But with the adjustable mortgages, they were getting qualified.
"Now, you're starting to see the end results."
This means even more clients for the association, which saw about 1,000 last year.
"The most difficult part of my job is having to tell a client we couldn't help them, or having to send them away because we don't have enough attorneys to see everybody," Mar said.