Law Students Help Serve Others as Spanish Interpreters

Spanish InterpretersTo advocate on behalf of any client, understanding what the client has to say is step one. But what if a client doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t trust the U.S. legal system?

Thanks to Rutgers Law–Camden’s Spanish interpreter position, serving any of the school’s 10 clinics and hybrid clinics, where students, under faculty supervision, represent real clients with real problems for credit, the stories of Hispanic clients can be told accurately and to people who can advance their case.

According to Joanne Gottesman, a clinical professor of law and director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic, having a Spanish interpreter on staff has made a tremendous difference in helping the clinic best serve the Hispanic community in South Jersey. This position, that provides 15 hours of service per week, has been filled this year and last by two Rutgers Law–Camden students, both of whom have their own compelling stories to tell.

During this academic year, third-year law student Xiomara Uran serves as Spanish interpreter, assisting with about 10 to 15 clients per semester.  When clients come to her cautious to convey why they need legal assistance and frightened of their future, Xio shares with them her own unfathomable journey.

Originally from Colombia, where her father Carlos Horacio Urán Rojas served as a state council assistant justice, Xio left her homeland shortly after the 1985 attack against the Palace of Justice, where the Supreme Court had held its hearings. According to Xio, her father was killed in events resulting from this attack.

Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, which currently consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight associate justices, the Colombian Supreme Court is comprised of 23 magistrates and a president and vice president.

Xio moved permanently to the U.S. at 15, becoming an American citizen seven years later. Ultimately, she began pursuing a medical degree at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Her professional trajectory changed course in 2006, when she and her family learned that her father and the 10 other Supreme Court justices who perished during the attack were on a government assassination list for rulings on cases against drug dealers and unconstitutional military operations.

The decision to begin a legal education at Rutgers was fueled by her desire to fight for justice for her father and for justice in the world. “If there’s no justice for a Supreme Court judge in Colombia, how is there hope for the average citizen there?” she asks.

But in November, her father’s case was heard by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Colombian government acknowledged its involvement. When Xio’s family had been testifying in Brazil, Xio stayed in Camden, committed to completing her law degree and helping others in legal battles of their own.

“It’s important for people like me with a different perspective and a different way of seeing the world, to help those not properly represented in courts because of cultural and language barriers,” says Xio, who attends classes with service dog Nakan, prescribed to help her cope with PTSD incurred from the lifetime of threats and intimidation she experienced.

“It is rewarding to be able to change something small on a big scale of the problems people face,” she says.  “It’s rewarding to make a change in their particular lives, changes in their perception of the system, and what they can change in their own future.”

According to Gottesman, Nakan has also made a positive impact in the clinic; the dog has relaxed clients of all ages during stressful situations that are essential to build their cases.

“My clinic students told me about when Nakan and Xio came with them to visit a teenage client in detention. They had to ask the client difficult questions about childhood abuse. Xio sensed how hard it was for the client and let Nakan go off leash to sit with the client, who ended up stroking Nakan in his lap, while telling the painful story of his past that he had been reluctant to tell when first asked,” recalls the Rutgers Law–Camden clinical professor.

Third-year law student Carlos Avila, who graduates this month, also contributes to the clinic by his serving as a Spanish interpreter last academic year as well as through the Immigrant Justice Clinic, in which he is currently enrolled. From Ecuador, Avila emigrated to the U.S. at five years old, and has long been translating documents and interpreting for members of his Trenton, NJ community.

As a high school student at Trenton High School, Avila successfully advocated for non-English speaking workers who came to him when their wages were withheld unlawfully.  But it wasn’t until Avila was a biology major at the College of New Jersey that he began considering a life in public service.  After listening to then U.S. Congressman Robert Menendez speak during a community event, Avila switched his major to political science and eventually enrolled at Rutgers Law–Camden.

“I wanted to be a doctor to help people, but when listening to Senator Menendez talk about the role of Congress I was inspired by how much good a lawmaker can do by shaping public policy. It felt like he was speaking to me,” says Avila.

He credits his ability to interpret efficiently to the years spent serving as a simultaneous interpreter at the International Charismatic Mission Church in Trenton, where with simulcasts of services, the Rutgers Law–Camden student has communicated the pastor’s passion and homilies to thousands of parishioners.

This role originated when non-Spanish speaking guests attended services one day and Avila agreed to sit behind them and whisper the sermon into their ears.

“I wanted to make sure the transformative message did to them what it did to me,” says Avila, who brings this same commitment to translate the meaning and the intent of what Rutgers Law–Camden clinic clients are saying to the students and faculty members who will represent their cases.

“Good interpreting requires keeping the integrity of the original message and adjusting it just enough for it to make sense, it’s an insanely arduous mental workout,” he notes. “I think this skill will be in even more demand when Immigration Reform passes and millions of Latino immigrants adjust their status thus requiring a whole host of legal services.”

As the state with the fifth highest immigrant population, New Jersey already needs to address the legal needs of immigrants, and those needs are likely only to grown if immigration reform passes.  South Jersey in particular represents a sizable Latino community in cities like Camden and counties like Salem and Cumberland, where civil legal services providers are scarce.

“Without the student interpreters, our clinical programs would be unable to effectively serve a large percentage of our community,” notes Gottesman. “The student interpreters enable our clinics to provide the South Jersey Latino community with access to critical legal services, such as representation in family law, landlord-tenant, juvenile justice, immigration and other civil matters.”

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