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Mar 30, 2016 8:01 PM

Complaint: Court sentences Latinos to costly English classes

The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) A suburban New Orleans court discriminates against Latinos by charging them for inadequate English interpreters and making them attend overpriced, ineffective English classes as a condition of probation, the Southern Poverty Law Center said Wednesday in a letter to the U.S. Justice Department.

The SPLC complaint centers on practices in 1st Parish Court of Jefferson Parish, which handles traffic and misdemeanor cases in a part of Louisiana that has seen an influx of Spanish speakers in the years since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. The complaint cites the experience of four people with limited English speaking abilities who said interpreters rushed them through proceedings and failed to adequately explain their cases including what they were charged with and, in at least one case, what they were pleading guilty to.

For instance, Omar Roman-Velasquez said interpreters rushed him through various court proceedings and he wound up pleading guilty to one offense driving with an expired inspection sticker that he would like to have disputed.

As a condition of probation, he and others were ordered to attend English class.

The class to which those with limited English abilities are sent, the complaint says, "does not usefully teach English."

And it's expensive.

"The court's English class costs approximately $300 for 10 weeks, while the local Catholic Charities charges approximately $25 for a semester of English classes," the complaint says.

SPLC said the court charged $130 each time an interpreter worked with one of the four people named in the complaint. One of the four ran up $520 in interpreter fees alone. Added to other court fees and his $65 fine for driving without having his driver's license with him, his cost was $956.25 not counting the required English lessons.

Court administrator Beatrice Parisi declined comment Wednesday afternoon. The woman identified as the teacher in most of the classes, Indiana Watler, did not return a telephone call to The Associated Press on Wednesday afternoon.

Charging fees for interpreters and English classes adds another layer of punishment for traffic offenses that isn't borne by English speakers cited for the same violations, the complaint says. The SPLC wants the Justice Department to investigate and take action to ensure that the parish court comply with federal law by providing free interpretation services and ending the practice of making English classes a requirement for probation.

Jefferson Parish and other areas in and around New Orleans have seen a growth in the population of Spanish-speakers after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Many Spanish-speaking workers came to the area after the hurricane and flooding to get jobs in the booming construction sector, helping homeowners and businesses rebuild. In Jefferson Parish, the Hispanic population has doubled since 2000, according to figures from the New Orleans based-think tank, The Data Center. Hispanics now make up 14 percent of the population in the parish about 60,000 people according to 2014 figures.

Most of the Hispanic population in Jefferson Parish is of Honduran origin about 39 percent.

German Noe George, 33, is another of the four mentioned in the complaint. He pleaded guilty to various traffic charges in the court and, as a condition of probation, enrolled in an English class taught by Watler. George, according to the complaint, has seen Watler in the court. The complaint also notes documents identifying her as a Spanish-English interpreter, although it was unclear whether she has done interpreting for court defendants.

If she has, the SPLC said, that could pose a conflict if she works as an interpreter for defendants who wind up in her class.


Associated Press reporter Rebecca Santana contributed to this story.


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