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Immigration Program Grants Empower, Inspire attorneys

Immigration Program Grants Empower, Inspire attorneys

by Chuck Myron

Sheyla Marino Quariguazy is an experienced professional who just wants to take care of business and take care of herself. For 20 years, she worked as an electrical engineer in her home country of Brazil, rising to the managerial level before the country’s rampant violence and dolorous tax structure sent her in search of a new life in the U.S.

Quariguazy moved to Lehigh Acres on a four-month tourist visa and hoped she could get an extension. She applied for one, but when she got married in 2018, that application was immediately nullified — leaving her with little recourse if she wanted to stay with her daughter, who had a student visa.

Enter the Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s Immigration Program Grant. The foundation funds legal services and related immigration help at six organizations around Southwest Florida: Florida Rural Legal Services, Americans for Immigrant Justice, CAIR Florida, Legal Aid Service of Collier County, Lutheran Services Florida, and Redlands Christian Migrant Association.

The Florida Bar Foundation channeled support to the initiative from funding that The Florida Bar earmarked to address a spike in demand for legal services after Hurricane Irma, which dealt a particularly withering blow to the local immigrant community.

National funders matched the money the bar put forth. The program is the only one in Florida and one of just 24 like it across the country to receive funding from Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, or GCIR, a national philanthropic and advocacy network. Still more funding comes from The New York Community Trust, a grantmaking foundation committed to a healthy, equitable and thriving community for all.

Because of that financial backing, Florida Rural attorney Roberto Suarez was able to enter an appearance in immigration court on behalf of Quariguazy and push her court date to 2020 — buying her more time to find a legal path to staying in the country and with her daughter.

Quariguazy, who works two jobs outside her field of engineering, wants to obtain licensure so she can resume her electrical engineering career.

“I’m so grateful for the help I’ve received, but ultimately I want to get to the point where I can fend for myself and not be reliant on others,” Quariguazy said in Spanish. “I feel like I don’t want to be a burden on society. I bring value in a needed field.”

So many are like her. In Lee County, about 16% of residents were born outside the U.S., and around 8% are not U.S. citizens, according to census data. Students from 154 countries speaking 134 different languages attended Lee County schools in 2017-18, School District of Lee County statistics show.

“It is definitely staggering,” Suarez said. “The expeditious fix is to have more advocates who can provide pro bono service when needed — and this is difficult. There are many attorneys who want to help, but many times they are not available when needed.”

Attorney Nirupa Netram, in charge of the Immigration Program Grant for the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, wants to get more attorneys involved in immigration work. She’s out to rally funders to keep the program going for another year, ensure organizations continue to apply for grants, and encourage local practitioners to make themselves available to the organizations for help. It is a cause Netram believes is worth the extra effort.

“Immigration is what America represents and what America was founded on,” she said.

The program is a large-scale project. The community foundation granted $615,000, which is the most it ever dedicated to a single cause area. At the core of the effort is a marriage of lawyering and community need, according to Kevin Douglas, GCIR’s director of national programs. Some of the grantees are primarily social service and advocacy organizations, but each must apply at least part of the grant money to providing immigration-related legal assistance.

Lutheran Services Florida used its share of the money to dedicate attorney Tim Drahovsky and a paralegal to the program full-time. They pledged to assist 160 people when they received the grant, but through outreach efforts and direct aid with citizenship applications, residency applications, petitions for family members, and referrals, they’re on pace to “shatter” that number, Drahovsky said.

“More than anything else, it’s getting info out to people who don’t have access to information,” he said. “My primary goals are to help them and tell them not to waste their money and get scammed by people who say they can help them and they can’t.”

Fake immigration lawyers are pervasive within the community, both Drahovsky and Netram said, arguing that “notario fraud” makes the need for legitimate help all the more pressing. The scale of the problem is difficult to define because of underreporting by immigrants who simply don’t know whom to alert. Washington, D.C.- based immigration nonprofit Ayuda estimates there could be as many as 100 victims for every one who steps forward, according to a story published in the American Bar Association Journal last year.

That’s one reason why Lutheran Services Florida and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, both conduct public information forums. They’re important even for legal immigrants, according to attorney and CAIR Florida Chief Executive Director Hassan Shibly, who refers to the dozen or so local seminars his organization has conducted as “preventative empowerment.”

“Hopefully, if you engage early on, people know what to do,” he said. “You never really know when you may need legal services.”

The grant helped CAIR open an office in Fort Myers — its closest locations previously had been in Miami and Tampa. Legal Aid Service of Collier County hired a new attorney thanks to the grant, and for Florida Rural Legal Services, the grant has had a wide-ranging impact, Suarez said. Without it, he wouldn’t have been able to handle Quariguazy’s case, and she might not be in the U.S. today.

“Typically, we were not doing deportation cases, but with the Southwest Florida Community Foundation grant, we are able to do a lot more for immigrants in Immigration court and with immigration issues overall,” Suarez said.

Continued funding is unclear. There’s no expectation that The Florida Bar will again provide money, though the bar foundation may take it upon itself to fund specific immigration projects if needed, said Kate York, director of grants for the bar foundation. In the meantime, attorneys can pledge their backing.

“If you cannot support this project with pro bono work or a financial donation, the other way you can help is to spread the word to other lawyers and community leaders that this project exists and needs their support,” York said.

Erica Villafuerte and Tijuanna Clemons, both of the Redlands Christian Migrant Association.

Kevin Douglas of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees speaks at a South­west Florida Community foundation event.

Southwest Florida Community Foundation
Southwest Florida Community Foundation

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