June 11, 2015
The path to U.S. citizenship or legal residence in this country is a long one – particularly for those who entered the country illegally or are seeking asylum. Immigration law is complex, and this road has many twists and more than a few pot holes that can keep people from reaching their destination.
Walking alongside those who are making this difficult journey are the volunteers with New England Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON).
Shadow of fear
Attorney Billy Peard talked about one client, whom he described as being “in a pretty good position, legally.”
The man had come to the U.S. on a work visa, but the visa had expired. He is well educated and speaks English well. He even did some online research before coming to the clinic to meet with Peard.
He’s better off financially than many who come to the clinic, Peard said, and not likely to be in immediate danger of being deported.
“He wanted to know how to improve his legal status after more than a decade living in constant fear,” Peard said. “He’s been living for 10 years in the shadow of fear ... It brought it home to me. If he’s living in that much fear, what about the people who don’t have capacity to do research online or read (information) in English ...”
And these are our neighbors, says Diane Mackie, who with her husband, Jim, leads the JFON clinic at Trinity UMC in Springfield, MA.
Though they may not have legal status, she said, “These people are already vital members of our community.”
The clinics, which operate once or twice a month, are opportunities for immigrants to meet with experienced immigration lawyers. If their cases are accepted, these folks will have help completing the complex paperwork and have an advocate in any legal proceedings.
“The clinic is so successful, we do no advertising; it’s just word of mouth,” Diane Mackie said. They see four to six clients during a clinic session, “and that’s a lot,” she said.
The Springfield clinic is one of three within the New England Conference; there’s Hope Acts in Portland, ME, and the newest clinic, opened in September 2014, based at Woburn UMC in Massachusetts.
The Portland clinic primarily serves people from West and Central Africa; the Woburn clinic, said Sylvia Missal, has already seen clients from across the globe – coming from Haiti, Brazil, El Salvador, India, China, Trinidad, Uganda and Albania, and admits the many languages present a challenge.
In Springfield, most who come to the clinic are Spanish speakers. The two lawyers who serve the Springfield clinic speak Spanish.
A volunteer interpreter, Josue Lugo, is there to help clients in the initial meeting, during which they relate their stories and fill out some basic paperwork before seeing an attorney. He also listens to the clinic’s answering machine and translates messages from those seeking appointments.
“I love it,” said Lugo, who is from Puerto Rico. “I make myself useful.”
Lugo said the stories he hears are touching; “I can’t say how they find the strength to continue.”
Finding the strength to continue on the journey is particularly difficult for asylum seekers. They are seeking protection from persecution for any number of reasons – race, religion, political views – and a large part of the legal work is preparing proof of that persecution.
The Portland clinic focuses exclusively on asylum cases, which consume a great deal of time and resources. Asylum cases can take years to resolve, said Sue Rudalevige at Hope Acts.
It can take two to three years for asylum seekers to get an interview; if people are not granted asylum after the interview, they head to court. For those who will need to appear, court dates are currently being set for 2019, she said.
“There’s a lot of limbo – waiting to be safe,” Rudalevige said, and that can lead to depression. Even those who are working, raising families feel insecure, she said. “They still want to know ‘I’m safe; I’m here and no one can send me away.’”
Rudalevige, who is British, came to the U.S. with her American husband. She said even after 50 years here, she understands it can be tough to make a life in a new country.
“I remember what it’s like even in best of circumstances,” she said. “I can talk about knowing how hard it is.” Both she and Lugo said that even those who have sacrificed so much to live in America still love and miss their home countries.
Rudalevige practiced law in Massachusetts, though not immigration law; she said that experience helps her talk to the clinic lawyers and understand the
“I know how helpless you can feel (dealing with the legal system),” she said. “I want people to be empowered.”
At this point, the clinic has 60 open cases, and is not taking any others until some of those are resolved.
In the meantime, Hope Acts plans to become a resource center where new residents can come to learn about services available to them and learn “American Culture 101,” she said.
Not yet seeing any of his cases resolved is one of the challenges, said Billy Peard, who has been working as a lawyer at the Springfield clinic for about six months.
“The cases are so slow-going – I have not yet seen any through to the end,” Peard said, “but I’m confident that we’re going to be meeting with success in the months to come.”
But for some clinic clients, he said, there is no legal recourse. Still, the clinics provide a valuable service just by telling people that hard truth and keeping
At Trinity, the clinic hours are 5-8 p.m.; they (with the help of Faith UMC in Chicopee, East Longmeadow UMC and St. Paul's in Ludlow) prepare a meal for clients and provide activities for children who may
accompany their parents.them from being victimized by “notarios.”
Notarios prey on immigrants claiming they can get help them obtain citizenship or legal status for fees that run into thousands of dollars. In most cases, they either make the person’s legal situation worse or do nothing at all.
For Peard, the meal is important.
“At JFON, I get time to sit down with the people that I’ll be meeting with later in the evening. We don’t get that in our other work,” said Peard, who works for the Central West Justice Center in Springfield. “I don’t get to break bread with someone; that’s really cool.”
Six churches participate in the meals and ministry for the Woburn clinic: Crawford Memorial UMC in Winchester, Calvary UMC in Arlington, Belmont and
Watertown UMC, Old South Church in Reading and Wilmington UMC.
“Many immigrants live in those towns outside (Boston),” Missal said, “because housing is more affordable.”
“The way it emerged was just as a moving of the Spirit,” she said, describing the clinic as “an informal collaboration” by churches and volunteers that saw a need and wanted to do something about it.
The lawyers who work with JFON are paid (though Missal estimates it is at half or a third of the going rate), and all of the clinics say that more funds to pay for more time with lawyers are needed.
“We just haven’t got enough attorney hours take on new cases,” Rudalevige said. “For all people who have filed and are waiting for interviews … there’s work to be done on each of those cases, a lot of work.”
“The struggle is capacity,” Missal said, “how to do the best we can with what we have.”
Learn more about NEJFON
Woburn photos courtesy of Sylvia Missal. Story and Springfield photos by Beth DiCocco