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Consulate hotline to provide legal assistance to Mexican immigrants

HERALD STAFF AND WIRE REPORT

Orlando’s Mexican consulate is partnering with several lawyers to provide legal guidance in Spanish to immigrants in Central and North Florida.

Starting today, the “Jurimex” program will offer a toll-free hotline, 1-877-FLORMEX. A staff member will take calls from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, logging in questions from Mexicans and other Hispanic immigrants about everything from accident claims to petitions for changes in immigration status. The inquiries will be passed on to participating lawyers, based on their expertise and location.

Consulate officials said they want to reduce immigrants’ reliance on bad legal advice or on inaccurate information from so-called “notarios,” or “immigration consultants,” who pose as attorneys. The program also will also help immigrants overcome the language barrier, they said.

“Those attorneys who are in the program are licensed by the Florida Bar and speak Spanish. They have worked with the consulate in the past and have helped us with many cases,” said Norma Moreno, a deputy consul in Orlando. “We often see cases of people who hire an attorney but are frustrated because they can never talk to them directly since the attorney does not speak Spanish.”

Bradenton attorney Steve Santiago said such a program could be beneficial as a first step for someone with legal issues, but said he believes the best legal assistance comes from face-to-face interaction with a licensed attorney.

“I think the service could be beneficial, if done correctly,” said Santiago. “As long as people are being directed to licensed attorneys and not ending up with a paralegal or legal assistant giving advice.”

Santiago, whose clientele is 70 percent Hispanic, said there is a need for awareness to the problem locally of those in need of legal help being swindled.

“I have seen some fly-by-night paralegals in the area, and unfortunately even some attorneys taking advantage of a language barrier or someone facing deportation, or other issues of utmost importance,” he said.

The consulate’s program won’t guarantee that callers will receive free representation, however. The Mexican government will offer financial assistance only in the most dire cases involving Mexican citizens. The consulate will refer the bulk of the calls to four law firms in Orlando, Daytona Beach and Sarasota, where callers will receive a free initial consultation but will have to pay to hire an attorney.

Brent L. Probinsky, an attorney with offices in Miami and Sarasota, said the referrals are “a logical extension of the legal support” that the consulate was already offering to Mexicans in North and Central Florida. About 150 Mexicans got financial aid from Mexico last year for legal representation in the consulate’s region, which covers Orlando, Tampa and North Florida. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that about 55,000 Mexicans live in Metro Orlando.

Orlando’s outgoing Mexican consul, Jaime Paz y Puente said the Jurimex program is intended not as a substitute for legal representation but as a starting point for those who need advice.

“It’s a tool that did not exist before and that will remain for the Mexican community,” Paz y Puente said.

Blanquita Trabold, who directs the Orlando advocacy group Casa de México, said any help is welcome in the Mexican community because immigrants often don’t know their rights and lose thousands of dollars in fees to consultants and even attorneys who promise legal immigration status.

“There is a great need,” Trabold said. “I think this will help the Mexican community in at least giving people a good starting point in legal matters.”

— Staff writer Robert Napper contributed to this report.

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