04 Jul Expanding the network of legal support for immigrants in crisis strengthens our community
by Sr. Maureen Kelleher, Esq., Immigration Law Staff Attorney with Legal Aid Service of Collier County and facilitator of the ‘Legal Rescue and Empowerment Initiative’
Many thousands of immigrants and their families in Southwest Florida are in crisis over legal issues affecting their status and an uncertain future which has made them highly fearful about things we all take for granted, such as safety, meeting basic needs, and raising and caring for family members. The scope and magnitude of the crisis is great, with ramifications affecting everyone living in our community.
It has been estimated that there are more than 50,000 undocumented immigrants living in Southwest Florida, and there are many thousands of other immigrants who have legal status to work which is set to expire soon, including those previously granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) after the earthquake which devastated Haiti, and the more than 2,600 residents of Lee and Collier County who came to the U.S. as children who received status under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
When vulnerable people with legal needs operate out of fear, they are often exploited or fail to take action within their rights to protect themselves and maintain the ability to care for those they love, such as children and elderly parents. Others act in reliance on bad information, misinformation, or outdated information. These dynamics harm and disrupt families, businesses, our local economy and the entire community.
The rules, regulations, and enforcement policies and tactics concerning immigration laws have changed radically, and these changes remain very fluid. Vulnerable and at risk immigrants, including the parents of U.S. citizen children, need a ‘safe harbor’ where they can obtain reliable, timely, accurate information and advice and a practical way to access it when they cannot afford private attorneys.
To address this crisis, Legal Aid Service of Collier County (LASCC) created the “Legal Rescue and Empowerment Initiative.” The goal of the Initiative is to expand access by immigrants to free, reliable and accurate legal assistance by training certified paralegals embedded within non-profit agencies serving remote and underserved areas. Specifically, the Initiative is facilitated by Sr. Maureen Kelleher, an Immigration Staff Attorney at LASCC who has served the legal needs of more than 10,000 immigrants since 1984 in Southwest Florida. Sr. Kelleher under the Initiative taught a 40 hour course which was successfully completed by all six student paralegals, to learn Immigration law and to become eligible for certification by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Access Programs to directly provide immigration services to clients in need. The course was made possible through a grant by the Community Foundation of Southwest Florida, and was hosted at the United Way House in LaBelle.
More work needs to be done and LASCC is looking for additional partners and supporters to expand the Initiative to meet the demand – which will continue to skyrocket. LASCC would like to help other non-profits in Hendry, Glades, Charlotte, Lee and Collier Counties sign up to be a host agency and invite staff to take and complete the course. Anyone interested in assisting is urged to contact Sr. Kelleher at [email protected] or (239) 775-4555.
This summer, Florida Weekly has graciously allowed us, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, to spotlight the nonprofit organizations funded through the Foundation’s 2018 competitive grant cycle. We have asked these grantees to share their stories. We are pleased to partner with these change-makers.
About the Southwest Florida Community Foundation
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. The Foundation partners with individuals, families and corporations who have created more than 400 philanthropic funds. Thanks to them, the Foundation invested $5.4 million in grants and programs to the community. With assets of $115 million, it has provided more than $71 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves since inception. The 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