Back in 1969 I worked in a legal services office in the Imperial Valley on the California-Mexican Border. Most of our clients were Mexican-Americans who had the usual poor people legal problems–rent arrears, welfare, and consumer debt. For instance, I found I had a large number of clients who were being dunned for unpaid bills at the County Hospital.
Since my employer, California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), believed that we should not only represent individual clients, but also impact the larger problems that affected the poor, I started thinking about how we might improve access to medical services in the county. Most of our clients could not afford doctors and had to go to Mexico for treatment. And those who went to the County Hospital ended up with large debts.
I discussed the problem with my bosses in San Francisco, but at first no solution came to mind. Then one of my supervisors called to tell me I might look into new grants that HEW was awarding for medical clinics for migrant farmworkers. That sounded promising, so I contacted HEW and was told that the first step was to find a neighborhood organization that could apply for the grant.
I immediately thought of Casa de Amistad, a community group in Brawley that had good rapport with the farmworker community. Once Casa de Amistad agreed to sponsor the clinic, a year of great excitement and suspense began. We had many small victories and almost fatal defeats before HEW finally approved a grant of about 400,000 dollars, only to see the local medical society file a lawsuit in federal court to block the grant.
Finally we were victorious in that suit and the Clinica de Salud opened its office in Brawley, California with four doctors. It was the first federally funded migrant health clinic in the United States. And while only a drop in the bucket of the unmet need, it was the most satisfying accomplishment of my short career as a practicing lawyer.
Fast forward forty-five years. I am returning to the Imperial Valley to witness the enrobing ceremony for a new Superior Court judge. His name is Marco Nunez, and the courthouse overflows with people of all ages celebrating the success of this local boy who everyone seems to admire and love. It is a special occasion for me too since Marco is a graduate of the University of San Francisco School of Law where I taught for many years, and also because his mother, Mary Ellen Nunez, was one of my favorite co-workers at CRLA so many years before.
I decided to also use our visit to the Valley to show “la clinica” to my wife Miriam who has patiently listened to the story of its birth many times. But I wasn’t sure I could find the clinic on my own so I googled its website to get directions, and learned a lot I didn’t know.
“La clinica” has morphed into “las clinicas”– it now operates twelve medical clinics all over Imperial County, as well as three dental centers, and three women, infant and child nutritional centers. It employs 340 people and has annual revenues of 34 million dollars a year. And it not only treats migrants, but also a wide range of patients from medicare, medicaid, and private insurance plans. Patients without insurance are billed on a sliding scale based on income. It sounds like our little clinica has become the Kaiser of the Imperial Valley, only better.
I should emphasize that I was only one of a group of people who worked to make la clinica a reality. Al Kovar and Cesar Enriquez of Casa de Amistad and Lou Giancola of HEW quickly come to mind. And I had no role in the clinic’s terrific growth since its inception. Still I think I can safely say that without me the clinic would not have happened.
While not denying that there is an element of shameless self-promotion in my telling the clinic’s story, I think it also highlights a larger truth. CRLA was part of the federal Legal Services Program within the often maligned “War on Poverty.” The time I worked at CRLA was the high point for federal support of legal service programs for the poor, and CRLA was one of the best financed of those programs . We had the time and resources to do our jobs well. But soon thereafter Legal Services came under vicious political attacks resulting in drastic budget cuts and restrictions on the cases it could take.
Who knows what legal services for the poor might accomplish today if it was generously funded once again? A legal system where only the corporations and the wealthy are represented by lawyers hardly qualifies as as system of justice.
I also think my personal story supports one of this blog’s primary messages– the practice of law can be an exciting and socially helpful profession if individual lawyers choose to make it so. So If any young lawyer or law student should ever ask my career advice again, I plan to say, “Do something you find interesting that may make the world a little less unjust– preferably something that someday might afford you an opportunity for shameless self-promotion.”