Amanda Alvarez has spent 10 of her 40 years in the United States, but the Nicaraguan babysitter still feels somewhat less than comfortable when called upon to speak English in a complex situation.
Last month, when a rental agent refused to honor her security deposit on an apartment or return the money, Alvarez turned to Ayude, the oldest and most important legal organization serving Washington's Spanish-speaking community.
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 Alvarez case personally -- and got results.
Armuelles "went with me in the rain to get my money back," said Alvarez, mother of two. "I don't know how to thank Ayuda. I could never have done that on my own."
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 the heart of Washington's Spanish-speaking community.
"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 Ayuda.
"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 very 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. Legal services are free to those who meet economic eligibility criteria set by the Community Service Administration poverty guidelines. Most Ayuda services are free, except for a $1 fee for translations, which defrays the cost of photocopies.
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 -- and with "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."
Many problems are not so easily solved. Ayuda deals with at least 2,000 cases annually requiring some legal procedure beyond simple representations on behalf of a client.
Rosa E. Jones, an Hispanic from the Dominican Republic, had just such a problem. After having been dismissed for alleged misconduct from her job as a maid at a Washington hotel, Jones found she could claim only a limited amount of unemployment pay.
With Ayuda's help, Jones successfully pursued a case against her former employers, who found themselves unable to prove the charge of misconduct.
"It was discrimination, just discrimination," said Jones. "But I couldn't have fought that on my own. Ayuda got me the money I was entitled to."
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 immigration field. Labor certifications are very complicated and timecomsuming and we just don't have the staff to do them."
Dedication and the giving of one's time seem to be prerequisites 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 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," Armuelles said.
Danger to undocumented persons comes not only in the form of a knock on the door from 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.'
"It's staggering and frightening," said Armuelles, "because it means that somebody can just use and abuse undocumented people because they're undocumented. They can take their money or force them out of their dwelling. Many times these cases involve small children who are U.S. citizens going through this process because their parents are undocumented."
One such 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 he was arrested earlier this year when INS 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 was ordered to leave. As of Dec. 20, he was still in the United States and said he planned 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. a
"So I came into the country illegally. 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."
Undocumented workers do not bring the only casework in which Ayuda finds its hands are tied.
"Some of my saddest clients are diplomatic domestics," said administrative assistant Rosa de Mouy, "because there is a very limited amount that you can do within the framework of legal restrictions. Those employes are really bound by that diplomatic visa. It the employer is unfair to them and they have trouble, that employer at any time can just say 'Out you go' and out they go."