No, it is not a mere annotation in the last paragraph of the fifth page in President Donald Trump’s budget proposal.
Yesterday, with just a stroke of the pen, the US leader recommended the elimination of the entire Legal Services Corporation.
But behind that ink blot in a cold budget sheet —which seeks to “make America great again”—are the hidden faces of thousands of women and men that would be left without any legal representation to claim their rights to quality education, to enjoy natural resources, and to the State’s protection for domestic violence survivors.
If Trump’s intentions materialized (his budget strives for an increase in the military budget), the Legal Services Corporation of Puerto Rico, the Pro-Bono Program, and the Inter American University’s Community Legal Office would perish due to a lack of resources.
These programs receive funds from the same sources, and they offer free legal services to people with limited resources in civil cases, such as evictions, foreclosures, layoffs, lack of healthcare coverage, or divorce and alimony cases that arise within a domestic violence context.
“This will affect the law firm of the poor, the two entities (Legal Services Corporation and Pro-Bono) that serve the great majority of the indigent population,” noted María Jiménez Colón, director of the Legal Aid Clinic of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) School of Law.
“This presents a devastating panorama at a time of great necessity,” she added.
Jiménez Colón and attorney Ariadna Godreau Aubert, the Access to Justice coordinator at Espacios Abiertos, argued that the situation is exacerbated when you take into account that access to legal representation in civil cases is not guaranteed by the Constitution like it is with criminal cases, even if it pertains the protection of fundamental rights.
“The situation worsens in an impoverished country, which is more vulnerable to civil rights violations,” Godreau Aubert insisted.
In analyzing the complexity of the situation, Godreau Aubert highlighted the importance and need to keep these entities funded during the times of the Oversight Board (OB) and a governmental restructuring—conditions that could cause an increase in citizen claims.
Jiménez Colón pointed out that the proposal for federal cutbacks has come at a difficult time, due to the economic crisis in the Island—with a public debt of around $70 billion—and the imposition of the OB to balance the public finances.
“This is happening at the worst moment and the worst place. This is different to the states, where there is more participation from the state governments for those budgets (for entities like Legal Services),” the attorney asserted.
She pointed out that if the proposal for cutbacks prevails, the Puerto Rican government—contrary to the states—would not be able to supply those budgetary needs.
In the fiscal plan approved by theOB this week, Ricardo Rosselló Nevares’s administration made a commitment to cut back expenses by $2.568 billion per year and increase revenues by $1.389 billion per year.
The executive director of the Island’s Legal Services Corporation, Hadassa Santini Colberg, expressed concern over the stormy winds that are blowing in the federal capital.
“There are no good news,” she affirmed in an interview with El Nuevo Día.
This year, the Legal Services Corporation is operating with a $16-million budget, $11 million of which stem from federal funds. It also received a $5-million state fund allocation and $76,000 in revenues from the fees that feed the Justice Department funds.
The entity has 16 regional offices throughout the Island and sees approximately 30,000 cases per year.
In the United States, the Corporation depends on annual federal fund allocations of $375 million.
Although the Legal Services Corporation has won important cases, its name is not usually featured in the press or in headlines.
Two of the Corporation’s attorneys are currently representing the community in the case that is being seen in court in Aguadilla to halt the construction of a touristic project in the Playuela beach.
Other six attorneys successfully defended the Vietnam community in Guaynabo, in litigation against Mayor Héctor O’Neill, where their denomination as a “special community” and the deriving legal protections were at stake. This was a landmark achievement for the residents of those 752 special communities.
Corporation attorneys also defend the families and children involved in the special education lawsuit, as well as the poor women who arrive daily at courtrooms in search for a protective order or for help to avoid losing custody of their children.
Other Affected Sectors
Trump’s cutbacks also affect the funds allocated to the arts and other areas of social endeavors.
Enrique Márquez, director of public affairs in the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, stated that the cutback would affect the institution only minimally, but he admitted that other cultural projects would suffer greatly.
Among the possible victims of these cutbacks, he mentioned the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art, the School of Visual Arts and Design, the Conservatory of Music, and the UPR’s cultural projects.
The Governor Weighs In
The Governor was cautious—yet slightly optimistic—about Trump’s budgetary plan.
Rosselló Nevares affirmed that, although the proposal includes substantial cutbacks in some agencies and to federal programs for social welfare, culture, and the environment, it allots new funds to other areas. He assured that his administration will seek to capitalize on those projects that will now receive more budget allocations.
“We have to analyze how we’re going to work in those areas where we can maximize resources in such a way that, if we have to move things around and make budgetary changes, they are in tune with what’s happening at a federal level,” the Governor pointed out during a press conference, after inaugurating an internet service center in the municipality of Las Marías.
Reporter Rebecca Banuchi Soto collaborated in this story.
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