05/17/2005

Mexican Woman Fights for Custody of Her Daughter

LEBANON, Tenn. | A hearing to determine if an immigrant mother regains custody of her child is expected to last through Thursday.

Felipa Berrera, ordered by a judge to learn English or lose her parental rights, returns to Wilson County Circuit Court here tomorrow to continue her fight for custody of her 11-year-old daughter, Linda.

Her attorneys are asking Judge Clara Byrd to set aside a decision by Juvenile Court Judge Barry Tatum that awarded temporary custody of the child to Warren and Emily Patterson, a foster family who want to adopt her.

Called as the first witness when the hearing began last week, Berrera declared her love for her daughter. "I don't hit my daughter, I love her," she said from the witness stand through a court-approved translator. Berrera speaks Mixteco, an indigenous language, and doesn't understand Spanish or English.

In November, Tatum ordered Berrera, originally from Guerrero, Mexico, to learn English or have her parental rights terminated.

The woman's 11-year-old daughter was placed with the Pattersons after allegations of neglect. The mother was given a Spanish translator for the proceedings and was unable to communicate with the court. During the proceedings, she asked the judge for counseling. Instead, Tatum gave her a deadline of six months to learn English at a fourth-grade level.

The ruling caught the attention of the Center's legal department, and its attorneys joined the local lawyers here working on the case.

"The fact that it was hard to talk to her meant that they didn't," said Center attorney Mary Bauer. "None of this would have happened if she had not been a poor immigrant and spoke English. They never talked to her."

The judge's decision to force the mother to learn English represents a larger cultural bias toward Hispanics and other immigrants in the court system.

"If this was an ordinary white, middle-class situation, there's no possible way that any judge would have removed the child and disallowed contact with her mother," said Center legal director Rhonda Brownstein.

Brownstein called the ruling a bigoted response to the immigrant community in Lebanon and the rest of the country.

"If the millions of immigrants who built this great nation over the generations had been required to learn English or lose their children," she said, "we'd have a country full of motherless children. It's nothing short of an outrage."

The Center expects to begin its case when the hearing resumes tomorrow. Bauer plans to include testimony from an expert on Mixtec culture.

The case reflects the Center's commitment to provide legal representation to society's most vulnerable members.