Julio Saucedo has spent almost 10 of his 52 years in the United States, but the Guatemalan-born employe of Chevy Chase Country Club still feels uncomfortable when called upon to speak English in a complex situation.
Last month, when Saucedo felt he was being unjustly asked to pay for costs arising from a traffic accident, he went for help to Ayuda, the oldest and most important legal organization serving the Spanish-speaking community in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.
Ayuda -- Spanish for aid or help -- is currently reorganizing under the guidance of its new executive director, attorney Sharon Armuelles.
A Canadian-born, naturalized U.S. citizen married to a Panamanian, Armuelles handled the Saucedo case personally -- and got results.
Armuelles "handled my case wonderfully," said Saucedo, who has a total of 10 children in Guatemala. "One important thing was to get the hearing postponed to Feb. 19 so that I cold go back to Guatemala for the holidays and see my children, especially one of my sons who has polio. I'm very grateful to Ayuda for its help."
Ayuda has just moved into a new six-room suite of offices in the building where it has been located almost since its inception in 1972. The agency, at 1736 Columbia Rd. NW, is in the heart of the area's best know concentration of Spanish-speaking people.
"We want to stress that we're here, we're alive and we're doing quite well," said Armuelles, 32. "We have worked very hard to maintain our presence in this building because of the continuity factor for the people who know Auyda.
"The building has gone cooperative. The people who live here now own the building, as opposed to having it sold and converted to condominiums. They were vey dedicated to keeping Ayuda here, too, and we owe them a lot," Armuelles said.
Ayuda was set up by a group of Georgetown University law students and incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1973. Under its 21-member board of directors, Ayuda became a United Way organization in 1978, and received 70 percent of its budget for the 1978-79 fiscal year from United Way. Donations were also received from the Eugene and Agnes Meyer and D.C. Bar foundations.
As a direct service, legal aid organization, Ayuda, serves lower income Spanish-speaking or foreign-born people in the Washington area. The organization is authorized to deal with any federal matter. About half of Ayuda's clients live outside D.C. in Maryland or Virginia.
Legal services are free to those who qualify under economic eligibility criteria as defined by the Community Service Adminstration poverty guildelines. Most Ayuda services are free, except for a $1 fee for photocopies of translated documents.
Ayuda's staff of five also includes three Americans and a Puerto Rican, all of whom speak English and Spanish. Student and community volunteers help them with an average of 20 clients who walk into the Ayuda offices every day -- plus "the phone just about ringing itself off the hook, too," said Armuelles.
"A lot of problems can be resolved on the clients' behalf and to their satisfaction with just a letter or a phone call," said Armuelles. "An English-speaking person from a legal aid society can call and do the job.
"I just dealt with a situation where a gentleman had come in about a medical bill for which he thought he had arranged deferred payment. He had just received notice saying the bill was immediately due and payable. He spoke no English and was terribly upset, but one phone call from Ayuda confirmed that his problem was due to a computer mix-up and he left our offices happy," said Armuelles.
Many problems are not as easily solved. Ayuda deals with at least 2,000 cases annually requiring some form of legal procedure beyond simple representation on behalf of a client.
Such cases, like the bulk of the problems handled by Ayuda, take time and trouble. Ayuda's Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 schedule is more theoretical than practical.
"We have a good record," said staff attorney Hugo Fleischman, 32. "We try pretty hard. The only thing we don't do is labor certifications, (the document) needed to get a legal residence visa. We refer those to other attorneys in the immirgration field.Labor certifications are very complicated and time-consuming and we just don't have the staff to do them."
Dedication and the giving of one's time seem to be prerequisities for working at Ayuda.
"In the past, when Ayuda didn't have enough money to go on with its work, everybody has voluntarily cut their salaries . . . and we probably already earn about half the going rate in Washington for our job categories," said Armuelles. "My job, in addition, to being a lawyer with cases, is to try and make sure that doesn't have to happen again."
In the crowded Ayuda offices, overflowing with cardboard cartons and stacks of legal reference books and papers. Armuelles explained the often delicate nature of much of Ayuda's casework involving "undocumented" persons -- Ayuda's way of referring to immigrants living and working in the United States illegally.
"About half of our cases deal with immigration and naturalization matters," said Armuelles, "and a high percentage of those cases involve undocumented persons. Some time ago, TV reporters came into the outer office and clients just started flying out the door.
"People are often afraid to come in. That's why we try so hard to keep our doors open because in these situations there is always a language barrier. We can overcome that barrier. We can overcome that very effectively. Our staff is more than capable of being tough on matters on behalf of our clients. The problem is when you have danger at the other end for your client," said Armuelles.
Danger for undocumented persons comes not only in the form of a knock on the door from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service authorities. In many cases, the most immediate danger Ayuda's clients face comes from unscrupulous landlords, shopkeepers and others who try to make a profit from the natural fear in which most undocumented persons live.
"If people come to realize that an undocumented person is somehow part of a transaction -- renting an apartment, seeking credit or buying merchandise which is faulty or for which an exhorbitant price is being charged -- we cannot press too hard for the rights of our clients," said Armuelles, "but we do everything we can. I was recently threatened by another attorney who said 'If your client presses this legitimate claim against my client, I'll call (the) immigration (authorities) and he'll be deported in two weeks.'"
One such an undocumented person is a 25-year-old Salvadoran who asked to be called "Juan Perez" -- the Spanish equivalent of "John Doe."
Perez went to Ayuda after being arrested earlier this year when immigration officers came to his Virginia apartment building seeking another undocumented worker they thought was living there. "Bad luck," said Perez philosophically. "I don't speak English, so I couldn't exactly make up a story and get away from them."
Ayuda explored the case fully after Perez requested help, and obtained an extension from the INS allowing him to remain in the country while the case was under study. Perez was found to have no legal basis for requesting resident status in the United States and ordered to leave. As of Dec. 20, he was still in the United States and plans to remain.
"I can't go back," said Perez calmly, "I have eight younger brothers and sisters still at home in El Salvador needing the money I make here. To get a visa to come in the country legally, I needed to show that I had property, a car and a big bank account. If I had all that, I'd stay in El Salvador.
"So I came into the country illegeally. By land. That was two years ago. And now I'll stay. Illegally. Ayuda did all it could. But they can't change the immigration laws."