26 Aug 2020 Legal Aid Service of Collier County: A Voice for Immigrant Residents
Many have fled deprivation and persecution in search of a better life. They hold tight to their American Dream. They’re vital to Southwest Florida’s economy. They are the undocumented immigrants who work in business and service sectors throughout the region as they strive to create a better tomorrow for their families.
Their journeys are often arduous, filled with uncertainties and complexities that threaten their aspirations. Cultural barriers, financial hardships and dire legal entanglements borne of shifting political winds can imperil their futures and their families as they seek legal status. Such challenges are part of the everyday reality for the region’s undocumented residents who long for citizenship.
Advocating for those grappling with such issues is the mission of the Legal Aid Service of Collier County (LASCC), which gives voice to legally imperiled immigrants living at 200% below the federal poverty level. The nonprofit organization provides the community it serves with an array of immigration legal assistance, from family and elder law, to human trafficking survivors, to housing and more. The LASCC program focused specifically on immigration status issues is the Immigration Legal Services and Empowerment Project.
Eloise Ayala, the Project’s supervising immigration attorney, says, “The primary population we serve are people who entered unlawfully and are seeking either asylum or some other relief (legal status).” Over the past three years or so, she says the trend has moved from unaccompanied minor children entering the country to primarily parents with children fleeing conditions in their home countries.
Additionally, LASCC’s managing attorney Carol O’Callaghan adds, “We’ve seen a lot of families in fear of deportation if the parents are undocumented, but the children are U.S. citizens. So we’ve been working with them on family-planning issues.”
As an example, she points to helping parents establish powers-of-attorney should they be deported and make the excruciating decision to leave their children in the care of other family members. The trauma of such family separation has received increasing attention as federal lawmakers have struggled to reach bipartisan consensus on immigration policy.
At the core of the politically charged standoff is the fate of jeopardized parents and fearful children. Ms. O’Callaghan says, “We’ve seen a number of families who have been here for decades. They’ve established businesses, work every day and are integral parts of the community. We’ve seen situations where either one or both parents are undocumented and are now facing deportation or detainment.”
Another major challenge for immigrants striving to achieve legal status exists far from the halls of a stalled Congress. It lives in the schemes of predatory swindlers who exploit a cultural misunderstanding about the practice of U.S. law to falsely advertise themselves as expert advocates who can help them.
Immigrants from Spanish-speaking cultures, such as those in South and Central America, can be easily misled because in those countries, as well as in some European countries, a notario (notary public in the U.S.) is qualified to provide legal representation. Unlike in those foreign countries, a U.S. notary public is not necessarily an attorney or a high-ranking judicial officer with the standing to provide the needed legal representation.
Advertising as notarios, these unscrupulous imposters often bilk unsuspecting immigrants out of thousands of dollars for worthless “legal” services – and they know such vulnerable, undocumented residents won’t report them for fear of jeopardizing their ability to remain in the U.S. with their families.
Protecting impoverished clients from an expense that takes food off their tables and, more broadly, educating the immigrant community to avoid being victimized is imperative. “There’s a lot of fraud happening,” Ms. Ayala says. “It’s important that we help people avoid spending thousands of dollars on something that will result in nothing.”
LASCC continues to work remotely as it navigates the uncertainty of COVID-19 and guides immigrant residents through these days of increased stress and anxiety. It’s a task Ms. O’Callaghan says is eased by the support of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.
“Their support has allowed us to continue to grow our immigration program,” she says. “We’re completely grant driven, and it’s not always easy to raise money for immigration services. The Community Foundation has been invaluable.”
Although navigating harsh political headwinds on behalf of Southwest Florida’s immigrant families has been especially challenging in an era of national divisiveness over immigration policy, the Immigration Legal Services and Empowerment Project remains as steadfast in its advocacy work as its clients are to their desire to achieve their own American Dreams.
For more information, please visit http://www.legalaid.org/collier. Or call (239) 657-7442.
This article is part of a summer series that highlights the vital work of regional recipients of 2020 Community Impact Grants from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.
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 $7.7 million in grants and programs to the community. With assets of $134.9 million, it has provided $85 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. The Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s regional headquarters are now located in the historic ACL Train Depot at Collaboratory in downtown Fort Myers, with a satellite office located in LaBelle (Hendry County). For more information, call 239-274-5900 or visit www.floridacommunity.com