The Hispanic population in Frederick County has quadrupled since 2000, according to U.S. Census data. With a stark increase in population comes a stark increase in need of Spanish-speaking services.
There are still only a few legal professionals in Frederick that offer Spanish-speaking law services, but some organizations are working to try to bridge the gap.
Maria Herrera is the executive director of the Spanish Speaking Community of Maryland, which has offices in both Silver Spring and Frederick. While working out of her office in Silver Spring, she realized that more and more Spanish-speaking immigrants were coming to the office from Frederick County and as far west as Hagerstown. She opened the Frederick office, which is on South Jefferson Street, in 2017.
Herrera is an immigrant herself, migrating to America from Cuba in 1968. Her father founded the Spanish Speaking Community organization to help immigrants adjust to their new lives and communities.
“So we do a lot of immigration work, so we help people get their papers, residency, citizenship, petition, so people can petition the reunification of families,” she said. “Our goal is to get people on their feet and to be able to have them become self-sufficient.”
She has recently partnered with attorney Devin Luqman to provide Spanish-speaking law services to the immigrant community in Frederick County, which she says is increasing. Luqman does not speak Spanish himself, but is learning. Several of his staff members speak Spanish, and he outsources interpreters when needed.
Luqman wanted to get more involved with the immigrant community and reached out to Herrera to see if he could offer her any help. Initially, he helped with documents and answering any questions she had about cases.
The Spanish Speaking Community recently received a grant from the Ausherman Foundation that allows them to provide legal services through Luqman at a discounted rate. The SSC does most of the work on the documentation and translation, which brings costs down for Luqman.
Some of the specialized work they do includes Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, which applies to children who were brought into America without documentation and were abused or neglected. They also can provide U-visas, which are available to immigrants who have been the victim of a crime.
Without the grant, immigration legal services could cost between $5,000 and $10,000, Luqman said. That’s due largely in part to the documentation, which the Spanish Speaking Community handles. In addition to personal documents, lawyers have to provide a lengthy description of conditions from the immigrant’s country of origin if they are seeking asylum in America.
“So usually, by the time we get into trial for a case, we have binders with about 400 to 500 pages for trial,” Luqman said.
In addition to high costs and large workloads, immigration cases are often lengthy. The average age of an asylum case is between three and six years. Court dates are typically a year or two apart, since there is a quota for how many visas can be granted each year.
Luqman said he has seen a large increase in the amount of immigration cases.
“If you go into a courthouse you’ll see it’s jam-packed,” he said. “You have to wait outside the door. You can’t even get into the room where the judge is. It’s definitely madness right now.”
With ever-changing immigration policies as well, immigration lawyers are constantly having to think on their feet to best help their clients.
“So while it’s probably the most creative time to be practicing immigration law, it is also at the same time the most difficult,” he said.
Luqman recently started attending parent teacher conferences at Frederick County Public Schools with Herrera. She has a partnership with FCPS where they can refer clients to her. He was surprised at how many people needed Spanish-speaking services.
“I didn’t realize there were so many people who were in need of these services,” he said. “It’s a bigger population than I thought, that is in dire need of help and could not afford it at all.”
Stacy Volovar, who recently opened her own firm with Jennifer Rankin, speaks both Spanish and French. She is a mediator, so she specializes in cases such as divorce and custody. Many clients who come to her speak Spanish.
Rankin also works part-time in the courthouse and says that she doesn’t know of many mediators from Frederick County who speak Spanish.
“There’s just not a lot available in their native tongue,” she said.
For Volovar, it’s important to offer services for Spanish speakers who are in the midst of unfamiliar territory in their legal cases.
“It’s hard for someone who only speaks Spanish to speak English, and then to try to talk about these legal things that nobody even really knows anything about in any language, is difficult,” she said.
She also thinks it’s better to go straight through an attorney who speaks Spanish rather than an interpreter for many clients.
“You’d rather have a meeting in English than have an interpreter, and it’s the same thing. They’re nervous and upset, mad, or whatever, they might be experiencing a bunch of emotions,” she said. “And then to have to try to communicate in that way is another kind of burden. So I’d like to think that it’s useful to speak Spanish.”