Centro Legal closes its doors

"The workers...are not the masterminds"
John Keller, the executive director of the Immigrant Law Center in St. Paul, says his organization will take over some of the work done by Centro Legal.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Centro Legal has served thousands of Latinos in Minnesota since 1981. During that time, the organization has helped its mostly low-income Spanish-speaking clientele with issues related to housing, domestic violence and immigration.

Over the last few years, Centro Legal has handled some high-profile cases, including the immigration raids in southern Minnesota. But the last few months have been financially difficult.

Linda Tacke is Centro Legal's interim director, who came on board last December. She says the organization was relying on fees, reimbursements and philanthropic support from foundations and individuals. But because of a combination of factors, she says Centro Legal ran out of cash.

"We knew that they were spending more than they were bringing in," said Tacke. "We did a staff reduction at the end of January, hoping that after that we could stabilize it enough to keep it as an ongoing independent or merged organization. And we weren't able to."

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So now, the half-dozen employees who are left, along with a few volunteers, are packing up case files and tying up loose ends. Clients have been notified that new attorneys will now handle their cases, or that Central Legal's attorneys will continue their representation at no charge.

Either way, Michele Garnett McKenzie, an attorney with Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, says the closure of Centro Legal will be a huge loss. She says for much of the last three decades, the agency has been a voice for the Latino community on a number of issues.

"Like family protection, and housing, and consumer protection and immigration -- at a time over 25 years ago when that was not a huge population here in Minnesota, and it was a dramatically under-served population," said McKenzie. "They've just contributed tremendously to bringing the Latino community into the political mainstream and into the social mainstream, and being such a force that they are here in our community."

The closure of Centro Legal will leave a void, says Frank Forsberg with Greater Twin Cities United Way, which has provided funds for agency over the years.

"It's a very sad day, I think, to lose such a wonderful organization such as Centro Legal," said Forsberg. "They've played a really valuable role in our community and have helped a lot of families who have needed their assistance."

The United Way is trying to make sure that at least some of those families continue to get help.

The agency has agreed to transfer a grant it had given to Centro Legal for work on domestic violence issues to the Immigrant Law Center in St. Paul. The two agencies have worked together on a number of issues over the years.

John Keller, director of the Immigrant Law Center, says Central Legal's closure is a tragedy, but the shutdown should serve as a wake-up call to surviving agencies.

"It's really a challenge to the rest of us who are here to pick up our game," said Keller "To turn to the community and say, 28 years of service, thousands and thousands of clients served by Centro Legal, does have and does lay a responsibility at the feet of all of us to say, how can we do a better job, how can we improve our service?"

At least two other agencies that had been funding Centro Legal have also agreed to transfer their grants to the Immigrant Law Center, so that it can continue the work of Centro Legal.