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Federal cuts risk civil legal aid for poor people

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Posted: Saturday, April 13, 2013 7:00 am

SULLIVAN CITY — Project by project, Graciano Arechiga turned a broken-down house into a home his grandchildren could take pride in.

With its rotting walls and roof, the house was little more than a shell when Arechiga moved it onto a small plot of land owned by his daughter in 2009. Arechiga, a 50-year-old migrant farm worker, set to work on repairs: strengthening its frame with new studs, redesigning its interior space and then replacing Sheetrock and adding carpet.

Arechiga claims he originally got the house for free in a handshake deal with an acquaintance planning to tear it down. But late last year, the former owner showed up at Arechiga’s renovated home demanding $4,000 for what Arechiga saw as a gift.

“It wasn’t worth $4,000 when I moved it out here,” Arechiga said Friday as he relaxed in between yard work. “The house was pieced together. Now they want money because it looks like a house.”

Arechiga balked at the asking price and was sued in December. After attempting to fight the claim on his own, Arechiga found a free attorney at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid who promised him a fair shake in the courtroom.

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, or TRLA, provides free legal help to thousands of low-income individuals like Arechiga who face domestic violence, housing and other issues. Its mission is endangered, though, by the impact of a series of federal budget cuts that will reduce the number of low-income Texans receiving legal help in its service area.

The Weslaco-based TRLA announced this week that it would lay off almost 25 percent of its workforce, including closing its offices in Del Rio.

The staffing reductions — affecting about 65 attorneys, paralegals and other staff — will result in a reduction of services to about 5,000 families across its 68-county service area in Southwest Texas. TRLA expects to help about 3,100 people this year in the Valley, down from 4,200 a year ago.

 

TURNING MORE AWAY

The layoffs are the unavoidable toll of federal budget cuts that “finally caught up with us,” said David Hall, its longtime executive director. Last year, the nation’s legal aid organizations suffered a 15 percent cut in federal funding, resulting in the loss of 1,000 attorneys at similar offices across the country.

Those cuts were briefly mitigated in Texas by the infusion of one-time grant moneys from a settlement. But when TRLA was then hit by the automatic federal budget cuts in the sequester, it forced the organization to quickly cut its budget by a total of about $3 million, affecting both its employees and those with legal needs.

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid — an organization that already took just 20 percent of the cases before it — would have to turn more people away. 

“We run a triage operation,” Hall said. “We see thousands of people a year that all we can do is say, ‘You’ve got a serious legal problem and need a lawyer but we don’t have anybody with time available to take care of that particular problem.’ It’s something we’ve always had to deal with.”

Legal aid officials are optimistic the federal cuts will be restored over time. The proposed budget released by the White House includes an extra $90 million — up to $430 million — from last year for the Legal Services Corp., the federal agency that delivers funding for civil legal aid to low-income Americans.

In the meantime, TRLA is soliciting more pro bono support from private attorneys to fill in the gaps in services. But even that won’t be easy with the federal budget cuts.

A portion of the federal funds that were cut are dedicated toward recruiting private attorneys for pro bono work and placing them with indigent clients, said Pablo Almaguer, who leads TRLA’s private attorney involvement efforts. TRLA, for example, develops clinics in counties where it lacks an official presence — such as Kenedy, Willacy and Kleberg counties — that make it easier for private attorneys to travel and provide legal counsel.

Coordinators who organized some clinics were among those laid off this week.

“It’s the perfect storm for the funding cuts that we’re having right now,” Almaguer said. “We have a poor economy that struggles along and limits the private contributions you would get from attorneys. When you add in our shortage of funding and staff, it’s going to be unprecedented the number of people that we have to turn away.”

 

SAVING LIVES

The federal cuts have left TRLA dependent on state budget writers.

The state’s legal aid operations used to receive most state funding from interest on legal trust accounts, historically raising up to $20 million. When low interest rates caused that funding source to plummet to less than $5 million annually, Texas Supreme Court Justice asked lawmakers to write legal aid into the state budget funded by general revenue.

Lawmakers dedicated about $20 million to legal aid in the current biennium, a number maintained in the budget legislators are currently working on.

“If the Legislature hadn’t come through, it would have been a lot worse,” said Betty Balli Torres, the executive director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, a group that administers and advocates for legal aid funding in the state.

She said legal aid prevents vulnerable community members from being denied access to the law when much is at stake: families facing improper evictions, seniors robbed through consumer scams and victims of domestic abuse searching for a way out.

“I do believe legal aid saves lives,” Torres said.

In Arechiga’s case, it may have saved his rebuilt home.

After he showed up in small claims court without an attorney, the justice of the peace sided with the former owner and told Arechiga to fork over the money or the home where his daughter and grandchildren live. The Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney is handling an appeals process, one Arechiga is optimistic will at least offer him a voice.

“There are a lot of injustices but people don’t speak up,” he said. “Legal aid is needed by the people.”

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Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and legislative issues for The Monitor. He can be reached at jjanes@themonitor.com and (956) 683-4424 or on Twitter, @moncounty. 

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