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Legal Clinic Serves Chester Co.’s Immigrant Population

Dan McCormick

The Legal Intelligencer

March 5, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

John Winicov

La Comunidad Hispana seems like a fairly run-of-the-mill community center. Sitting on a rural highway just outside Kennett Square, Pa., in Chester County, its one-story building has the concrete-and-stone look of a doctor’s office, complete with a waiting area stocked with toys and hushed speaking tones. In fact, La Comunidad contains not only a health care facility, but also social services and adult education. Those programs draw most of its visitors, typically Hispanic workers from Chester County’s mushroom-farming industry. But on one rainy Thursday morning, a woman walked in to inquire about whether her 3-year-old son’s severe autism made him eligible for disability benefits.

Why would she ask this question at a community center? Because she was a client of La Comunidad’s twice-a-month legal clinic. Convening client-by-client in a small conference room that contains a round table and a white-board with a scrawled red outline of the state and national governments focusing on the judicial branches, the legal clinic consists of La Comunidad’s attorney, John Winicov, dressed in a suit and carrying a laptop; an interpreter culled from La Comunidad’s predominantly Hispanic staff; and the client, having undergone an intake interview and waiting list in order to finally get a chance to speak to “el abogado.”

La Comunidad, founded in 1973, serves Chester County’s Hispanic immigrant population, many of whom work in the county’s decades-old mushroom farms. Funded largely by the United Way of Southern Chester County, it has continued to expand slowly. Two years ago, La Comunidad moved into its current facility, which houses all its services, including health care, social services and education.

“We want to serve the whole person,” said Margarita Mirkil, the center’s executive director.

Winicov, a sole practitioner from West Chester, Pa., operates the clinic, and he does it mostly on his own and at no cost to the clients. He comes to the community center’s office at 10 a.m. every other Thursday and conducts each client meeting, which each typically last 30 to 45 minutes. The clinic handles labor and wage issues, immigration problems, disability or insurance claims, landlord issues, divorce and custody disputes and whatever else clients bring in.

On this particular morning, Winicov, who has closely cropped hair and the warm, direct manner of a basketball coach, arrived a few minutes late, spoke briefly with the executive director and sat down with his first client of the day, the woman who was inquiring about her autistic son.

Winicov explained through the interpreter that, although the woman could not receive disability benefits on behalf of her son since he was not old enough to work, she might be eligible for state-subsidized domestic help. It wouldn’t be much, but it might give her time to work more, he said.

Winicov also said there could be a chance that the woman, who is an undocumented immigrant, could obtain asylum because her disabled son is a U.S.-born citizen. It’s in the nation’s interest, he explained, to keep the boy, who does not speak, experiences night terrors and has frequent tantrums, in the care of a mother who is a permanent resident and not in danger of being deported.

Immediately, he picked up his cellphone and left a voice mail with an immigration attorney whom he frequently turns to for help when these sorts of cases come up at the clinic. Winicov advised the woman to speak to her case worker about domestic help, and he said that when he heard back from the immigration attorney, a staff member would give her a call. The woman left looking satisfied.

Winicov, who had volunteered at La Comunidad Hispana in the past, approached the community center with the idea of creating a legal service last year.

“I wanted to have collaboration with other organizations helping at-risk, low-income workers,” he said.

These workers are a section of the Pennsylvania population that is in danger of falling through the cracks, Winicov said. They can’t afford private attorneys. Living outside Philadelphia keeps them from having access to programs that operate inside the city, and living just above the poverty line prevents them from being able to use their community’s other legal services, he said. Of course, the undocumented status of many of the workers pushes them even further away from help.

“For anyone with low income, it is very difficult to get help for legal problems that won’t generate a fee for the attorney,” Winicov said. “The idea behind the legal clinic is to provide legal advice and counseling for all the other people that aren’t able to be assisted by any of the other programs.”

In April, La Comunidad asked United Way for money to start the program. The request was granted, and in July the legal clinic held its first session.

The clinic provides the staff with one more tool for meeting the needs of the farmer population, Mirkil said. If someone comes into the health care center after a car accident, the nurse practitioner can advise the patient to visit Winicov as well so that any legal questions he or she has can be answered.

Because so many of the workers don’t speak English, it’s very easy for them to find themselves in complicated legal situations, and it’s very hard for them to get out, Winicov said. Even something as commonplace as getting behind the wheel of a car carries with it certain legal responsibilities — an immigrant who speaks no English may have little to no idea what those might be. The simplest legal tasks become daunting, especially for workers with few financial resources, he said.

For example, another client came in with two letters informing him that his driver’s license had been suspended. He had spoken to another lawyer who had helped him obtain insurance and proof of insurance and had charged him. The man still did not know if he was allowed to drive or what he needed to do.

Winicov asked some preliminary questions and found that the man never had a license in the first place. He also looked over the letters and realized that the man was actually charged with two separate yearlong suspensions, which would be served one after the other.

He explained to the man, who had driven himself to La Comunidad, that until his suspensions are over he’ll run the risk of getting another suspension every time he drives. He also told him that, since one of his suspensions was from a DUI, if he gets another DUI while under suspension he’ll end up in jail. Not only that, but he may be investigated by immigration authorities and possibly sent out of the country.

“It’s a challenge to navigate their legal problems. You have to have a basic knowledge of how things work for people who are not citizens of this country,” Winicov said.

Fortunately, that basic knowledge is something that Winicov gained over his years representing the mushroom farming companies in Chester County. Since 1994, he has worked with the area’s immigrant population through legal plans, a service provided to the farming companies that serves as an employee benefit. Workers in need of legal advice or representation could speak to Winicov at no charge to them.

“One of the reasons I trust John is that he’s been working with this population for the past 20 years,” Mirkil said.

Many of the clients’ problems can be solved fairly easily, once they understand what the situation is, Winicov said.

“The goal is to resolve problems quickly and without having to litigate, because that takes forever and is expensive, and it doesn’t necessarily result in what the client needed in the first place,” he said.

The trick is asking enough questions to find out what a client really needs. For example, one woman came in to the clinic asking for advice on obtaining custody of her 9-year-old daughter whose father was in Mexico.

Winicov began to explain how difficult that would be, then asked the woman why she needed custody of her child. The woman responded that if she obtained custody it would be much easier to apply for a passport for her daughter, which would normally require permission from both parents. Winicov explained that it would actually be easier to obtain parental permission from the child’s father than custody, and he advised her to try sending the father the permission form for her daughter’s passport rather than a custody order.

It’s this kind of expertise that makes Winicov so valuable, Mirkil said.

“He understands the community,” she said.

The clinic is scheduled to last for three hours, but Winicov often finds himself staying longer in order to meet with more clients. This time, he had to push back a lunch meeting so that he could remain for his last session.

Winicov also works with the staff to educate them on the kinds of legal problems that their community members typically face, Mirkil said. The goal is to give the staff the ability to know when there’s a problem and to know what action needs to be taken to fix it, she said.

“There are a lot of lawyers out there working in private law firms, who just can’t do it, so John is willing to do it for less, almost nothing,” Mirkil said.

Mirkil also said she plans to ask for more funding for this upcoming year, in order to expand the program. Winicov would like to double the amount of time he spends there, she said.

Commitment from people like Winicov is what helped La Comunidad gain the trust of the farm community, Mirkil said, and it’s trust that allows La Comunidad to serve it so well.

“That’s our goal: to continue to keep the trust, focus on our clients, focus on their needs,” Mirkil said.

Dan McCormick can be contacted at 215-557-2440 or dmccormick@alm.com.

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