Activists fighting a backlash against illegal immigration in Georgia often feel as if they've entered a shooting war armed with only a shield.
But this is no ordinary shield.
It's fiberglass, 32 feet long and goes by the name "Abogadomovil," or "Lawyermobile." The RV acts as a roving office for Jamie Hernan, Christopher Taylor and Jerome Lee, the boyish-looking barristers whose larger-than-life likenesses adorn both sides.
Ringed with flags from across the Americas, the vehicle rolls into apartment complexes and soccer matches offering Spanish-language tutorials on immigration law. The RV has ferried petitions and protesters to Washington, D.C. And the billboard on wheels always carries the same message. "Hernan, Taylor & Lee," it reads. "Los Abogados Para Ti." (The Lawyers For You.)
The Roswell-based firm's blend of guerrilla marketing and social activism has made it among the biggest — and most controversial — players in a state whose illegal immigrant population has swelled to nearly half a million. Fans say the Georgia-raised attorneys are at the forefront of the latest fight for a marginalized group in the cradle of the civil rights movement. Critics call them profiteers whose activism is more about the bottom line. All agree they are the faces of resistance as communities across the region, frustrated with federal inaction, try to do something about illegal immigration.
When Cherokee County barred landlords from renting to illegal immigrants last year, Hernan, Taylor & Lee filed suit and got the county to back off. In July, when Gwinnett County required the companies it does business with to prove their workers are legal residents, the trio raised constitutional concerns. And when Cobb County proposed a crackdown on day laborers last month, the attorneys with the big RV successfully deflected the ordinance.
Anti-illegal immigration activist D.A. King said he has little respect for the firm with offices in Roswell, Canton and Tampico, Mexico. "It bothers me that they have built their entire business around defeating laws and local ordinances that would do something to slow the influx of illegals into this state," says King, president of the Marietta-based Dustin Inman Society. "They're padding their own business by padding illegal immigration."
Hernan counters that local governments have no business meddling in federal immigration matters. That crusade has endeared his firm to Latino leaders such as Venus Ginés, a health fair organizer who has borrowed the Abogadomovil for breast cancer screening. "When I hear them talk, it's more than just legalese," Ginés said. "I hear real concern for families. They're part of what we call 'La Lucha' [The Fight]."
On a recent Sunday, at Festival Peachtree Latino in downtown Atlanta, Hernan empties five jugs of gasoline into the blue beast parked across from an Olé Mexican Foods stand. The Abogadomovil is thirsty. And so is Hernan.
"I don't remember doing this," Hernan says, smelling of sweat and gasoline, "at King & Spalding."
It's a reference to the venerable Atlanta law firm whose international headquarters gleam in the distant skyline. Hernan, Taylor and Lee left the comforts of the 49th floor there five years ago. They landed in the Spanish-speaking streets.
As Atlanta's largest Latino festival heats up, Hernan, Taylor and the firm's Spanish-speaking paralegals distribute 2,000 hand-held fans with business cards attached.
"Gracias," says one woman, fanning herself under a Salvadoran flag. "Thank you," gasps another festivalgoer, her sweat-streaked cheeks painted in Puerto Rico's official colors.
Shrewd marketing, yes. But once again, as the Latino community feels the heat, Hernan, Taylor and Lee are providing relief.