Calling in from the shadows
March 4, 2013
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – “I’ve lived in the United States for years, but went back to Mexico for a week and was caught trying to cross the border again. Can I still become a citizen?”
“I’m a citizen, but my husband is not. How can I ‘fix his papers’?”
“My employer wants to help me to get legal status. What can they do?”
It was a recent Wednesday evening near 6 p.m., and the phones at Glenwood Springs Spanish language radio station La Nueva Mix hadn’t stopped ringing for an hour.
Ted Hess, a Glenwood Springs immigration attorney and a partner in the firm Hess and Schubert, fielded calls steadily, as he has every week for four years.
His translator, Hess and Schubert Legal Assistant Miriam Ceja Hernandez, repeated every question in English, then re-stated Hess’ responses in Spanish for the caller.
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The show, called “Punto Legal,” has long been a source of legal advice for a local undocumented immigrant population afraid of any contact with U.S. authorities.
“Even when someone calls and speaks in English, we always translate, because the important thing is to answer one question for many people,” said Alex Contreras, program director at the five-year old radio station.
Punto Legal is enormously popular: The phones ring continuously each week, and wait times can stretch as long as 40 minutes, Contreras said.
The show is on during what Contreras calls “prime drive time,” from 5-6 p.m. “It started at a half hour, but we always went over, so we expanded it to an hour,” he said.
Typically, Hess will make a few announcements about the latest news on immigration law, then spend the rest of the hour answering calls.
“There seems to be a bottomless pit of need out there for knowledge about immigration law,” said Hess, who started the show to advertise for his law firm, but has come to love the weekly routine.
Every call is anonymous, so that even those afraid of emerging from the shadows will voice their concerns.
“Often I get questions where people say ‘a friend of mine wants to know,’ and by the end of the conversation I get the sense that it’s really them who want to know,” Hess said.
People ask about a huge range of topics, though Hernandez, the translator, said people ask most often about how to secure legal status for a spouse.
“We get calls from people who filed their citizenship papers in 1997, and want to know where they are now, because the immigration system is so far behind,” Contreras said. “We get calls about U visas, which are visas given to people here illegally who have witnessed a crime or been the victim of a crime.”
Sometimes, he said, people will simply walk into the radio station while the show is on the air, hoping for quicker access to Hess’ legal knowledge.
And their questions occasionally extend outside of the legal realm.
“We’ve had sick people will call us and ask for a doctor they can go to,” said Contreras.
On a recent Wednesday, most callers had questions about the so-called “Deferred Action” program introduced last summer by the Obama administration, which would give some young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children immunity from deportation.
Only those with clean criminal records, a high school education, and at least five continuous years in the U.S. can qualify – applicants must also be under 31 years of age and have arrived in the U.S. when they were younger than 16.
With so many criteria to meet, questions are inevitable, and Hess said his program was flooded with inquiries from local immigrants when the initiative was first introduced in summer 2012.
Questions have dropped off somewhat since then, and the Hess and Schubert law firm has winnowed its deferred action cases from more than 200 to about 20.
“When we finished the show last night, we were amazed at the number of calls we’d received about deferred action,” he said.
Virtually since the moment it was founded, the station La Nueva Mix has been a hit in the Roaring Fork Valley. Contreras tracks data on the number of listeners who stream the radio station from their computers, and he said that the station saw more than 84,000 hits during the month that the website went live.
In addition to the immigration show, Contreras also airs real estate and financial shows for a Spanish-speaking audience, as well as a show on law enforcement issues.
“We have a Rifle police officer from Michoacan, Mexico, who talks about law enforcement issues, what to do if you are contacted by police,” said Contreras. “He knows what the community wants to hear.”
The station is owned by the Avon-based radio network NRC 365, which also owns English language stations like KSPN and KNFO.
User data, though, suggests that La Nueva Mix draws far more listeners than those stations, at least on the Internet. In January 2013, its website had more than 24,000 hits, while KSPN had just over 2,700.
Those listener numbers have translated into a hugely effective form of advertising for Hess, who says the show has been able to tap into the strong talk radio tradition that has existed in Mexico for decades, and that many immigrants carry with them when they arrive here.
“We get most of our clients through the radio show, by a vast margin,” he said.
Contreras is a natural-born talker, which partly explains his longevity in the radio business. He has a marathon-length music show on La Nueva Mix from 2-6 p.m. each day, which was recently nominated for a Colorado Broadcasting Association award for “best afternoon show.” He is headed to the group’s annual awards ceremony in Denver on March 9 to find out if he won.
Before making his foray into the world of commercial radio, Contreras had a show for years on KDNK Community Radio in Carbondale, and before that he had a Monday night music show on Aspen Public Radio.
“I came here from Guatemala, spoke no English, and was living in the Aspen Airport Business Center,” he said. “I would just search on the radio for Spanish language stations, and one night I heard something.”
It was a music show hosted by a Latino couple on Aspen Public Radio. Contreras went straight to the studio to introduce himself, and before long he had taken over their slot.
Contreras arrived in the U.S. in 1992, and his 20 years in the valley give him a unique perspective on how the local immigration scene has changed.
When he first arrived, he said, it took minimal documentation for an immigrant to get a driver’s license, and police who arrested an immigrant didn’t make a habit of holding them for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (ICE).
That changed, Contreras said, when ICE expanded their presence in the valley.
More recently, according to Hess, there have been modest signs that the federal government is easing up on such raids. There have been promises from ICE not to use information gathered in the deferred action process to arrest an applicant’s family members, and a recent Justice Department directive prohibited ICE from holding people on suspicion of immigration violations after pulling them over for routine traffic stops.
Hess speculates that the changes may be a preview of the Obama administration’s hopes for more comprehensive immigration reform later this year.
“That was an effort by the government to try to focus on criminals, and to back off decent hardworking citizens,” he said. “The population that is going to benefit from any reform is sort of being defined right now.”