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Issue Date:  November 12, 2004

Faith groups to immigrants' defense

Community-based programs spring up to meet legal needs


While the percentage of people living below the poverty line in the United States dropped between 1990 and 2000, the numbers nevertheless remain staggering. According to the Department of Commerce’s Statistical Abstracts of the United States, in 1990 some 33 million people (18 percent), versus 31 million (15.6 percent) in 2000, were living in poverty.

Furthermore, during the 1990s, more than 11 million immigrants arrived in the United States -- many of them poor, not well educated, unable to speak English and desperate.

Regardless of country of origin, these destitute residents -- Americans and others -- every day must cope with circumstances that are far harder than most of us could ever imagine. And having the money to pay attorneys for legal representation is far, far down their list.

As a result of this crying need, and encouraged by President George W. Bush’s Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives, faith-based legal organizations have sprung up through the country. For example, 10 years ago, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network had 17 community-based programs. Today it has almost 160 member agencies providing legal services to more than 100,000 low-income immigrants annually.

Yet it is not only Catholics who are volunteering their legal expertise. There is the Christian Legal Society, Baltimore’s Jewish Legal Services, Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation’s Interfaith Legal Services and many others, and attorneys volunteering their time have personal affiliations with all religious traditions.

In the case of low-income immigrants, many bring with them stories of both incredible hardship and bravery. Donald M. Kerwin Jr., the executive director of Washington-based Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), points to a Haitian teenager whose father, a supporter of then-Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, had been murdered. His body had been left in a well-known dumping ground, where wild dogs mauled the dead. “It was too dangerous for this child to retrieve his father’s body,” said Kerwin. “He ended up hiding in the woods for months and then coming to this country as one of the many Haitian boat people.

“I remind myself that behind the anonymous people who are stocking the shelves at the Safeway or Wal-Mart there are often stories of incredible heroism and courage.”

For these low-income immigrants, it is estimated that as many as 80 percent are unable to attain basic legal services. Furthermore, during the mid-1990s, legal aid programs saw congressional restrictions barring them from participating in criminal defense work, class-action suits and from representing undocumented immigrants or those evicted from public housing if that person had been charged with trafficking in drugs.

In addition to the difficulties facing all low-income immigrants, Arab immigrants and visitors, as well as naturalized Arab-Americans, have been particularly hard hit since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “These people have been targeted for hate crimes by Americans, but they are also seen as suspicious characters by the government and are being targeted for additional scrutiny,” said Karen Rignall, the national outreach director for the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services. The Dearborn, Mich., center is the largest Arab-American social service provider in the United States. “We provide immigration services, do advocacy work and have relationships with attorneys.”

Rignall added that the center is one of six plaintiffs filing a class-action suit with the American Civil Liberties Union that challenges Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows for secret searches.

The Patriot Act has caused mayhem in many Arab-American communities when all visitors -- although legal permanent residents were exempted -- from 22 Arab and Muslim countries were required to register with the federal government, while others were threatened with deportation. “Right now, there are 13,000 of these people in deportation proceedings throughout the United States,” said Rignall. “In normal times, problems with visas would have been resolved with hearings in front of a judge, but now they are resulting in deportations of these visitors.”

For many attorneys, this work is personally motivated by their religious background. As Kerwin, citing Matthew 25:31-46, put it, “I do this work because it is based on Catholic social teaching.”

Similarly, Mitch Kamin, executive director of Los Angeles’ Bet Tzedek (Hebrew for House of Justice), pointed to the directive in the Old Testament that instructs Jews: “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.”

“Bet Tzedek began in 1974 when a group of attorneys, rabbis and students were trying to pursue the mandate to help anyone who was in need,” said Kamin. “At the time, we began working with seniors in what was traditionally a Jewish part of town with housing and public benefits issues.

“Over the years, we expanded our practice to include other areas, such as kinship care for those who were taking care of their grandchildren -- and in Los Angeles County, there are 60,000 grandparents with children in the foster care system -- and those raising children in absolutely deplorable slum housing, while at the same time working with Hispanics on employment rights projects.”

Today Kamin estimates that his 23 staff attorneys, helped by between 300 and 400 volunteer attorneys, assist approximately 10,000 low-income Californians each year, serving as part of the safety net that works for fair wages, safe housing and medical care. In the case of Bet Tzedek, about 70 percent of the funding raised privately includes support from the Jewish Federation and the United Way, while the remainder comes from government funding (local and state, as well as federal pass-through funds under the Older Americans Act.)

“It’s constantly a challenge to maintain the necessary level of funding,” he said.

Funding woes aside, Kamin added that, as a result of being an agency with Jewish origins, Bet Tzedek is able to play a significant role in building bridges between the different communities in Los Angeles: “It’s wonderful when a Latino family can be served by a Jewish organization.”

Funding is not a concern for the West Michigan Christian Legal Aid -- there simply is no budget. The West Michigan Christian Legal Aid program is run in conjunction with Mel Trotter Ministries, an established Grand Rapids-based, inner-city mission primarily aimed at the homeless. “While our work is not limited to those at Mel Trotter, most of the people we meet with are in its residential program,” said Dick Butler, an attorney in private practice who joins another 10 attorneys who meet weekly with residents.

Attorneys provide counseling for the legal and spiritual needs of residents. The legal difficulties include everything from child support and custody disputes and landlord-tenant squabbles to contested divorces and criminal matters.

“Many legal problems have a spiritual aspect. … Often there are broken relationships that involve a need for reconciliation and forgiveness and, as Christians, we are there to minister to people and share Christ with them,” said Butler.

Kerwin said, “We take the whole person very seriously and try to collaborate with other agencies that provide non-legal social services, whether that might be educational or spiritual assistance.”

While many are motivated by religious conviction, there is often a component of simply being a good citizen. “For each client whom we protect, we are able to help them access all the opportunities -- political, educational, civil and cultural -- available in this society. … What we do at Bet Tzedek is a critical part of our democracy,” Kamin said.

Difficult as the situation of many of Kamin’s clients may be, there are plenty of success stories. “I remember one family that we managed to get into safe housing,” he said. “One of the daughters went on to graduate from college.

“She told us that she was so inspired by the lawyers here that she decided to go into public service … the opportunity we helped create for her family motivated her to help others.”

Mary Medland is a Baltimore-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, the American Bar Association Journal and other publications.

National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 2004

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