Shameless Self-Promotion

comments 3
Heroes / Repairing the System

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.”

3 Comments

  1. Karen Musalo says

    Inspiring story and it proves how each one of us – working together with others – can change things for the better in the world!
    Karen

    Like

  2. Wonderful piece. The Clínicas have been a godsend for the rural poor. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard how they’ve saved lives.

    Like

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