TV, Radio Give Legal Advice to Immigrants

Times Staff Writer

When Juan Antonio Sigala was arrested in Puerto Rico by U.S. immigration agents in 1998 and faced deportation, he knew whom to call for help: South Pasadena attorney Enrique Arevalo.

Sigala, who had gone to San Juan for an AIDS conference, knew of Arevalo from listening to the lawyer’s Spanish-language radio show in Los Angeles that focuses on immigration law.

“I didn’t have much faith in lawyers,” said Sigala, 37, a Mexican immigrant who was working for an HIV-prevention organization at the time. “But after listening to his show, I thought I should try.”


With Arevalo’s help, Sigala was granted political asylum -- arguing that he faced persecution in his home state of Jalisco because he was openly gay. Now he hopes to become a permanent U.S. resident.

For many Mexican and Central American immigrants living in California, Spanish-language radio and television are their primary sources of information on immigration law.

They often cannot afford legal counsel, so they rely on the attorneys who appear on morning talk shows and evening newscasts to answer questions and alleviate their fears. Can la migra pick me up as I walk my children to school? Can I apply for a green card if I am a farmworker? Can I get a driver’s license even though I don’t have my papers?

These days, topics include President Bush’s proposal for a guest-worker program, a police officer’s inquiries about a person’s residency status, and citizen border patrols planned in California.

“The area of immigration law is constantly changing,” Arevalo said. “It’s one area of the law that lends itself to the political shenanigans of Washington.”

As the national debate over illegal immigration heats up and reform advocates become increasingly active, such information sources are even more crucial for California’s large immigrant community, said David Ayon, a senior research associate at Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles.

“The anxiety level is definitely rising,” Ayon said. “So the need for or the appeal of this sort of programming is rising along with that.”

In fact, such legal affairs programming has become one way that Spanish-language stations are competing for audiences, Ayon said. The stations legitimize themselves by providing something useful to their viewers.

“They offer information,” he said. “It’s not unlike the way mainstream news competes offering weather and traffic.”

But relying solely on the advice of media attorneys can be risky, said Angela Sanbrano, executive director of the Central American Resource Center. She urges immigrants to follow up by hiring their own lawyers or checking with community-based organizations that offer free legal representation.

“Every person has a very unique situation,” Sanbrano said. “You cannot generalize from the advice that is given by an attorney on a news program.”

Some immigration reform activists say putting lawyers on television only teaches people how to beat the system. That in turn encourages more immigrants to cross the border illegally, said Barbara Coe, head of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform.

“It’s quite obvious that this is another effort to try to get around our immigration laws,” Coe said.

At KTNQ-AM (1020), the vast majority of listeners are Mexican, many of whom have recently arrived in the U.S., program director Santiago Nieto said.

“Immigration is a very hot topic,” Nieto said. “We constantly try to keep people updated.”

Indeed, Arevalo has become something of a celebrity in the working-class immigrant community. People often recognize him on the street, thanking him or peppering him with questions about how they can bring their parents or siblings to the United States.

Last week, Arevalo was on his way to Immigration Court at the federal detention facility in San Pedro when a truck driver yelled his name.

“Once you start doing radio and television, like a DJ, you become a celebrity,” Nieto said. “Automatically, you are recognized wherever you go, wherever you are.”


Arevalo, who came to the U.S. as a teenager, first appeared on Spanish-language radio in 1986. Now he presides over several Los Angeles television and radio shows, including a weekly call-in program, “La Ley de Imigracion.” During the two-hour show, Arevalo and fellow attorneys talk about recent court cases, legislation and news articles related to immigration.

Arevalo said he felt an obligation to provide an alternate view to “anti-immigrant rhetoric” and to dispel rumors spreading among recent immigrants.

“It’s an easy way to have a window with the public and use my experience of 21 years as an immigration attorney to inform the public about immigration law,” he said.

On a recent morning, KTNQ aired a round-table discussion with a group of local immigration attorneys called the “dream team.” They discussed the Real ID Act, which is pending federal legislation aimed at blocking states from issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. And they urged listeners to get involved in the battle by protesting and calling legislators.

“In our countries, political action normally hasn’t resulted in positive things. It has resulted in jail or beatings,” said attorney Gloria Curiel, whose parents are Mexican immigrants. “We are in a free country ... we have the right to protest so our voices are heard.”

Curiel appears on the KMEX-TV Channel 34 morning newscast twice a week in a segment titled “Imigracion al Dia.” She helps immigrants maneuver through the bureaucratic citizenship process and the constantly evolving legal system. She also tries to ensure that they understand the impact of recent legislation and prevent them from falling victim to fraud.

“Criminals take the money of hopeful immigrants,” Curiel said. “Our job is to stop that abuse.”

Executive producer Moana Ramirez said Curiel serves as a filter for information for immigrants new to the country.

“Gloria is basically the lifeline to our viewers,” she said.

One viewer, Rosa Ramirez, didn’t have enough money to hire an attorney. So she wrote to Curiel with her legal questions about becoming a resident. Rosa Ramirez, who is from Guadalajara, Mexico, has been in the U.S. for 15 years and has two children who are American citizens.

“Sometimes I get nervous,” said Rosa Ramirez, who lives in West Covina. “What is going to happen in the future? They are going to take away more rights from the illegals.”

When Bush announced his proposal to temporarily legalize the status of millions of workers who are in the country illegally, Curiel got a spate of calls from immigrants wondering whether they would qualify and how soon it would take effect.

Curiel also answers individual viewers’ questions on the Univision station. Gabriela Santis, a Chilean immigrant who runs a medical billing business out of her Lancaster home, recently wrote Curiel asking for help.

Though Santis has been in the U.S. since 1978, she had never sought citizenship. But with immigration constantly in the news, Santis said, she decided that it was time to legalize her status.

“Things are changing for all of us,” she said. “It’s getting progressively worse for everybody.”

On a recent Monday morning, Curiel adjusted the American flag pin on her bright red suit and walked into the studio. Sitting in front of a Los Angeles skyline, Curiel pulled out Santis’ letter and gave her good news: She was eligible to legalize her status.

But Curiel can’t always help. As soon as she finished her morning news segment, the phone rang at the station. A woman was calling to ask what to do for her brother, who had been detained at the Mexican border.

“No hay mucho que puedo hacer,” she told the woman, explaining why there wasn’t much she could do.

A few minutes later, newscaster Gabriela Teissier walked up to Curiel and handed her an envelope with her own immigration documents.

“How soon can I do it?” Teissier asked about changing her status from legal resident to U.S. citizen.

“It takes six months,” Curiel responded, “so this year.”

“It would be wonderful,” the newscaster said enthusiastically. “I want to vote.”