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Immigrant mother gets Center's legal help

An immigrant woman ordered to learn English by a Tennessee judge or risk losing parental rights to her child is being aided by the Center's legal team.

LEBANON, Tenn. | March 18, 2005 -- Faced with losing custody of her child for not speaking English, an immigrant woman here is receiving legal assistance from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In November, Wilson County Judge Barry Tatum ordered a single mother from Oaxaca, Mexico, to learn English or have her parental rights terminated.

The woman's 11-year-old daughter was placed with a foster family after allegations of neglect. The mother, who speaks Mixteco, a native dialect, but not Spanish, was given a Spanish translator for the proceedings. 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, which quickly decided to take on the case and all of the woman’s legal costs.

"The judge's requirement that a mother learn a new language within a few months or risk permanent parental termination is a gross violation of the Tennessee and federal constitutions," said Center legal director Rhonda Brownstein.

Tennessee attorney Jerry Gonzalez, the mother's attorney here, said the Center's involvement provides a major boost to the case.

"She now has three attorneys representing her, plus the resources of a nationally recognized civil rights group," Gonzalez said. "The Center's attorneys are experts in this field. We will do everything humanly possible to protect her rights."

Gonzalez said 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.

"As a group, immigrants are certainly at a big disadvantage when it comes to court orders regarding custody than a person who has lived and worked in Lebanon, Tennessee, their whole life," he said.

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