The Land of Opportunity Fund, an endowed field of interest fund of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, has been established by an anonymous donor who will match donations of $50,000 or more with an additional $50,000.
Through its grant making, the Land of Opportunity Fund aims to sustain nonprofits that serve immigrants and to support innovative ideas to meet the future needs of both the immigrant community and the economy of Southwest Florida. Major donors to the Fund will constitute an advisory board and assist in evaluating future grant applications. After research about local needs, a team of volunteers has designed two pilot programs to connect immigrant residents with legal services. Online donations for both pilot projects and the Fund are accepted at www.landofopportunityfund.org.
The two pilot programs associated with the Land of Opportunity Fund are:
Immigration Legal Services (ILS), a pilot project that supplements staffing support at nonprofits by placing a qualified immigration attorney in a location convenient for clients who would otherwise not be able to access such legal help or afford it.
El Camino (The Path), a mobile and web-based app that offers immigration guidance and local resources in order for individuals to qualify and pursue employment and permanent residency. Unique in the country because of its local focus, it is in development and will be available for download and distribution by employers, faith-based organizations, social service agencies and others. It will assist users by providing the information they need in advance of appointments with immigration attorneys.
“The five counties of Southwest Florida are home to many of the state’s immigrants working in such fields as health care, agriculture, construction and the hospitality industry,” said Dawn-Marie Driscoll, a project team member. “Yet only two counties provide effective nonprofit legal aid to assist immigrants with their status issues. Lacking access to reliable and affordable legal services, many immigrant residents, especially those of low to modest means and those facing deportation, have fallen victim to predatory legal practices.
“These projects actually started back in 2015 before the issue of immigration was front-page news,” said Driscoll. “It was never a response to a public policy discussion but a careful study of the issues facing our neighbors, fellow parishioners, college students and local employers. The legal paths are so complex that we found everyone is better served with the guidance of an immigration attorney.”
ILS began in March at the Heights Center in Harlem Heights located in Fort Myers, funded by David Lucas. Immigration attorney Lindsay Ray of Amigos Center is accepting appointments at the Center to efficiently service residents who need legal advice. Consultations are free and confidential.
“Certain immigrants from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Haiti, who have temporary protected status here in the U.S. due to extraordinary circumstances in their home countries, need help getting their status extended and their work authorization renewed every 18 months,” said Ray.
She added victims of violent crimes who help law enforcement with the prosecution of the offender qualify for a visa that allows them to live in the U.S. for four years, obtain work authorization, and eventually apply for permanent residency. U.S. citizens and permanent residents are also able to petition for the permanent residency of certain immediate family members living abroad who wish to move to the U.S.
“The Heights Foundation and The Heights Center are very grateful for this partnership with the Land of Opportunity Fund,” said Kathryn Kelly, president and CEO of The Heights Foundation. “The pathway to citizenship is complicated and difficult, especially for our low-income families. This is a much-needed service, as it is almost impossible to navigate this system without an attorney. We look forward to serving our most vulnerable families with this pilot program.”
Others who need assistance include students who were brought to the U.S. at a young age by their parents and are able to apply for protected legal status (DACA). As recipients of DACA, they are called “dreamers.” They receive a temporary status for two years at a time, which is renewable. That status allows them to work and to continue with their studies through college and even graduate school.
Amigos Center provides high-quality legal services at a very low cost. It never turns anyone away based on his or her inability to pay, and it doesn’t charge for consultations.
“Our free consultations are one of the most important services we provide to our community,” said Ray. “They allow us to educate our clients about their individual case as well as provide them with information that they can use to protect themselves and pass on to their community. We often use our consultations to remind clients that fraud is common in the field of immigration, and we share the warning signs that they should look out for if they’re ever confronted with someone who wants to charge them thousands of dollars for a legal status, even though they don’t qualify for one.”
The American Bar Association commission has reported that unscrupulous “notarios” or “immigration consultants” have become an increasingly serious problem in immigrant communities. Often using false advertising and fraudulent contracts, notarios hold themselves out as qualified to help immigrants obtain lawful status or perform legal functions such as drafting wills or other legal documents. Unethical notarios may charge a lot of money for help that they never provide. Often, victims permanently lose opportunities to pursue immigration relief because a notario has damaged their case. Unfortunately, notario fraud is usually identified after the fact when an immigrant has already suffered an adverse event as the result of a consultant’s services (e.g., a denial of temporary protective status or a removal order), and seeks the assistance of a licensed immigration attorney. Local nonprofit human service providers have reported that having lost money to notarios, families are then in need of food as well as housing and other assistance.
Funds for an immigration attorney at other locations such as United Way houses and underserved regions such as Hendry and Glades counties are also being sought through the Fund’s website.
The next phase for The Path includes development and distribution of the app, which would expand its content and distribution to all of Southwest Florida.
The immigration project team includes Sister Maureen Kelleher, a prominent immigration attorney and advocate on behalf of the immigrant community in Immokalee, Fla., Dan Bevarly, an experienced civic and public policy technology consultant, Julie Ben-Susan, a former financial services executive from Fort Myers, Dawn-Marie Driscoll of Cape Coral, an attorney and former chairman of the board of trustees of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, and Virginia Stringer, a former corporate executive and community leader from Sanibel.
The two pilot project initiatives are separately funded by local donors to demonstrate that innovative ideas can provide services to help residents who are already in Southwest Florida assimilate, prosper and contribute to their communities. If successful, the goal is that an existing nonprofit will be funded to continue them.
“Southwest Florida is the canary in the coal mine for changing demographics, as the Baby Boomer generation ages into retirement,” said Driscoll. “Foreign-born residents and their children will be its future workforce, particularly in critical industries such as health care, construction, hospitality and agriculture. Consider the example that immigrants already comprise 25 percent of all medical doctors and 20 percent of home health aides in the U.S., and Southwest Florida is already facing a shortage of health care workers in the future.”
Immigrants spend money in local businesses, which creates jobs. They pay state and local taxes, funding essential services (nearly $600 million in Florida, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy). The businesses they create sustain the jobs of even more workers.
“I think the relevancy of this proposal to our employment market is very timely as our unemployment numbers plummet,” said Diana Willis, owner of Jason’s Delis, Southwest Florida. “I know of a few folks who have been taken for a ride with counselors who would draw the process out and keep taking their money. Ultimately, they are not getting the results they needed.”
“Our family founded and has operated Cement Industries for more than 63 years,” said Gay Rebel Thompson, president of Cement Industries of Fort Myers. “I worry about our future sustainability – and that of other construction companies – if we cannot find or develop trained employees with a command of English who want to enter into the skilled trades essential to sustained, safe and quality construction here. Our region emphasizes a college education for some, which is fine, but local residents can earn a great income in construction in a very short time. I hope that foreign-born newcomers to Southwest Florida will be a part of our labor force in the future because we need them and value their contribution to our community.”
“The clear majority of immigrant families only want the opportunity to work hard, to share in the American dream,” added Craig R. Folk, CPA, Miller Helms & Folk PA. “Yet every day they face the fears of exploitation, of assimilation to a new culture, of uncertainty and even of arrest. The Land of Opportunity Fund helps them sort through the mind numbing bureaucratic maze of immigration forms and law. Two of our staff accountants are immigrants. They are excellent employees, pay their taxes and are an asset to our community. With help from the Land of Opportunity Fund, more success stories will be possible.”
For more information and to contribute online, visit http://bit.ly/LandofOpportunityFund or www.landofopportunityfund.org, email [email protected] or mail donations to the Southwest Florida Community Foundation office at 8771 College Parkway, Building 2, Suite 2, Fort Myers FL 33919, with notation for El Camino, ILS or the Land of Opportunity Fund.
The Southwest Florida Community Foundation, founded in 1976, cultivates regional change for the common good through collective leadership, social innovation and philanthropy to address the evolving community needs in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. It partners with individuals, families and corporations who have created more than 400 philanthropic funds. Thanks to them, the Foundation invested $5 million in grants and programs to the community last year. With assets of $93 million, it has provided more than $67 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves since inception. The Community Foundation is the backbone organization for the regional FutureMakers Coalition and Lee County’s Sustainability Plan.
Currently, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s regional headquarters are located off College Parkway in South Fort Myers, with satellite offices located on Sanibel Island, in LaBelle (Hendry County) and downtown Fort Myers. For more information, call 239-274-5900 or visit www.floridacommunity.com.