Agency’s Legal Aids Brings Hope, Stress Relief for Florida Latinos

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Salud Heroes
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Many Latino immigrants arrive in Broward County, Fla. (27% Latino) with no community ties, no possessions, no (or little) money, and no prospects for employment. Aside from the everyday challenges of facing this scenario, they also often face legal questions or citizenship matters.

That’s why Hispanic Unity of Florida (HUF) was founded to offer free legal aid to low-income families in their most troubling times, to relieve stress and, in turn, improve people’s health and quality of life.

Magaly Alvarado, a program manager with HUF, knew that she and her organization could and should do more to help their community.

Latino immigrants & toxic stress

Broward County, Fla., is home to a diverse immigrant population as it has become a hub for many Latin American and Caribbean transplants. Many members of this population come to the United States without prospects for jobs or easy access to community resources due to language, cultural, and other barriers.

These immigrants suffer dire finances and poverty, which is a major driver of poor health conditions, said Magaly Alvarado.

“We have a population here that oftentimes is in financial crisis and they have no access to any type of support structure,” Alvarado said. “They didn’t have anyone to turn to that could help them with legal questions or citizenship matters.

“When something bad like that happens, it causes a great deal of stress on the person, on the whole family.”

Stress, of course, can affect a person’s health in many ways.

Stress can lead to many health concerns. Uncertainty regarding legal issues was one of the many stressors that HUF encountered among their clients.
Stress can lead to many health concerns. Uncertainty regarding legal issues was one of the many stressors that HUF encountered among their clients.

Everyday stresses—such as paying bills and juggling childcare—can have short- and long-term health effects, such as a stomach ache, higher blood pressure, etc., the American Psychological Association (APA) reports.

“Multiple studies have shown that these sudden emotional stresses—especially anger—can trigger heart attacks, arrhythmias and even sudden death,” according to the APA. “Although this happens mostly in people who already have heart disease, some people don’t know they have a problem until acute stress causes a heart attack or something worse.”

HUF was founded in 1982 by community leaders Eugenio Torres, Angelo Fernandez, Jose “Pepe” Lopez, Jose Rodriguez, and Miriam Ruiz with a mission to empower Latinos and others to “become self-sufficient, civically engaged and to lead productive lives.”

The twin issues of legal assistance and immigration were core issues for HUF.

“When you look at the continuum of immigrants to the U.S., whether you’ve been here for only three months or for 15 years, we help them with everything from learning English to transitioning into becoming a U.S. citizen,” said Josie Bacallao, HUF President and CEO.

Their plans for legal aid started small.

Offering Legal Help to Reduce Stress

Initially, HUF searched for a local partner to provide legal services to HUF clients.

In 1998, HUF brought on a legal partner to provide legal

Hispanic Unity of Florida helps relieve the stress of their largely immigrant Latino population through their free legal services.
Hispanic Unity of Florida helps relieve the stress of their largely immigrant Latino population through their free legal services.

consult and answer legal questions—but only on a limited basis.

Later, HUF expanded their efforts by partnering with a completely pro-bono legal firm. This allowed them to begin serving more members of their community on a more regular basis.

But they still wanted to do more.

“We wanted to find out ways to make the service even better so we could reach more people,” Bacallao said.

According to the U.S. Census, 1 in 4 Floridians are now of Hispanic/Latino origin; up from 1 in 6 10 years ago. Broward County’s Latino population is the fastest growing in Florida.

This increase of individuals also forecasts a greater need for legal services, Alvarado said.

“People need help with a number of legal issues, including immigration,” she said. “We do what we can to help everyone. Reducing their stress is important.”

HUF opened a full-service free legal center in partnership with a local law firm.
HUF opened a full-service free legal center in partnership with a local law firm.

Reaching Latinos in Broward County

HUF continued to seek ways to expand their legal offerings.

They wanted to bring in a constant, physical presence that would always be available to aid in legal services for HUF clientele and residents.

They reached out to Legal Aid Service of Broward County, Inc. a local non-profit that had been providing legal services to the underprivileged since the 1970s, to see if there was a partnership available.

Legal Aid typically provides their services by phone. Those in need of help contact a toll free number and are connected to the appropriate person.

In 2014, HUF cemented their partnership with Legal Aid Service of Broward County and together opened a new legal aid system at HUF’s new outreach center.

Legal Aid Service provides a paralegal to staff the center from 9 a.m. to noon every Thursday to offer free legal services in both English and Spanish.

“When you are able to help someone deal with a situation they feel is nearly impossible, that helps to ease their mind,” Alvarado said. “Knowing that they aren’t going to lose their home or have their paychecks garnished or be deported and have to leave their families, having those issues dealt with gives them peace of mind and lets them focus on building a better life.”

The legal services are among HUF’s most-requested services.

Since 2014, more than 200 individuals have received free consultations from one of the on-hand legal experts. More than 25 different legal experts have donated their time and services, and the outreach center has been staffed by more than 15 different volunteers.

Free legal consultations in multiple languages

Clients have visited HUF’s legal outreach center been served in four languages: English, Spanish, Haitian-Creole and Portuguese.

The consultations are free.

“We really take the time to discover what our clients’ needs are in order to help them,” Bacallao said. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Many leave taking advantage of our many services and transform their lives in the process.”

HUF is committed to continuing and expanding the legal outreach center.

“What happens when people utilize our legal center oftentimes is really making their lives better,” Alvarado said. “It’s a project we’re committed to seeing succeed.”

Additional Links

www.hispanicunity.org

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

ABOUT THE PROGRAM Salud America! The RWJF Research Network to Prevent Obesity Among Latino
Children is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program aims to educate researchers, decision-makers, community leaders, and the public in contributing toward healthier Latino communities and seeking environmental and policy solutions to the epidemic of Latino childhood obesity. The network is directed by the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. For more information, visit http://www.salud-america.org.

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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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