Faith Groups to Immigrants' Defense: Community-Based Programs Spring Up to Meet Legal Needs
Medland, Mary, National Catholic Reporter
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. …