N.C. Latino workers get legal ally, advocate

Staff WriterApril 9, 2002 

RALEIGH -- It has been 20 years since the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund opened a new regional office. But now, as North Carolina's immigrant and Latino population continues to grow, the group's leaders announced Wednesday they will open a new office in Atlanta in January that will cover the Carolinas and Georgia.

The fund bills itself as the nation's leading Latino litigation, advocacy and educational outreach group. It currently has offices in Houston, Phoenix and Albuquerque, N.M.

According to recently released census estimates, North Carolina's Hispanic population jumped 394 percent during the 1990s to 378,963 people. Wake County's Hispanic population is the state's second-fastest growing.

Leaders of El Pueblo, a statewide Latino advocacy group, invited community workers, educators and leaders to the group's offices in downtown Raleigh on Wednesday. They voiced their concerns about civil-rights issues and identified the legal services they would like to see.

"We want to have a productive relationship with this community," Antonia Hernandez, the fund's president and general counsel, told the 25 community members in attendance. "We want to be the legal arm of you and the voice of you."

Fernando Cuevas, who has spent 36 years working on farms and organizing farm workers, said that North Carolina's farm and field working conditions are among the worst he has seen. He said he has witnessed migrant workers not being paid for their work and laboring in unsafe conditions, and employers, contractors and recruiters taking advantage of the workers.

"Something is wrong with the system in the state," said Cuevas, who works for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

Other concerns raised at the meeting included providing health education materials in Spanish, decreasing racial profiling, encouraging leadership, delivering basic literacy skills in Spanish and offering fair and ensuring equal access to health-care services with bilingual providers and interpreters.

"We have seen a great need to address language access, immigrant rights and education in North Carolina," Maria Blanco, a counsel for the fund, said afterward.

Staff writer Ayren Jackson can be reached at 836-4938 or ajackson@newsobserver.com

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