CDFF Newsletter: Legal Services for Migrants

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Know Your Rights: Legal Services for Migrants

Hello! Thank you for reading issue #6 of the California Dignity for Families Fund (CDFF) Newsletter Series: Learning for Immigrant Justice. This month we spoke to several of our CDFF nonprofit partners about the importance of providing legal services and support to migrants. Without legal aid, many migrants would not be able to navigate the complex American legal system and access their right to pursue lifesaving protections and essential services.  

While asylum seekers arriving in the U.S. have a year to apply for asylum, they face obstacles such as language barriers, a challenging application process, and a backlogged court system. Without in-language legal assistance, many of those who may be eligible are unable to complete the asylum application process on their own and end up missing the application deadline. Asylum seekers with legal representation are not only more likely to complete the application process, they are considerably more likely to have a successful outcome. An asylum seeker is five times more likely to win a petition for asylum with the help of a lawyer. 
Top needs of migrant families and individuals as shared by CDFF nonprofit partners.

CDFF nonprofit partners list legal services as the number two need (after housing) of the migrants they serve.
In addition to helping those who are eligible apply for asylum, access to high quality, in-language, free or low cost legal services can:

• Help eligible immigrants access other forms of legal relief including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS), and help folks navigate a pathway to permanent residency and citizenship.

• Support those in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody and help prevent their possible deportation by providing legal information, representation, and advocacy.

• Facilitate access to benefits such as public housing and food.

Read on to learn how the following CDFF nonprofit partners provide legal services to their clients and how funders can support their efforts.

Know Your Rights

When migrants first arrive at the border, they need information about their legal rights and their specific legal situation. Might they be eligible for asylum? Are they allowed to work? Can they apply for benefits? According to Lindsay Toczylowski, Executive Director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center (ImmDef), “People are often extremely confused upon arriving in a new city and need someone to help orient them to where they are in the legal process.” Migrants need assistance navigating complex legal processes and understanding the frequently shifting laws and policies that will allow them a pathway to residency.

Organizations like ImmDef and Al Otro Lado provide legal orientation services and information to new migrants at the border. ImmDef also conducts Know Your Rights presentations in their community, and Al Otro Lado hosts a TikTok channel which regularly streams videos in multiple languages that educate viewers on policies that impact asylum seekers at the U.S. border. ImmDef and Al Otro Lado also help migrants with document review and provide legal representation.

Immigrant Defenders Law Center (ImmDef) provides legal education presentations to their community.
Migrants need to understand the legal information and services they receive, which means that organizations need to have strong language access plans and translators for the 40 plus languages that are spoken at the border. As we learned in our last newsletter, many migrants from Mexico and Central America do not speak Spanish and only know their indigenous language. Liza Diniakos, Program Manager for MICOP’s Immigration Legal Assistance Program (MILA), tells us about the migrants that MILA serves from the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Michoacán. “These indigenous populations face unique challenges including language barriers, as they often only speak their native pre-Hispanic indigenous languages.”

Funding language access plans and translators is crucial for a successful and effective legal program. Nicole Ramos, Project Director at Al Otro Lado, concurs. “In Al Otro Lado’s work we often witness how language access intersects with access to the legal system and access to medical care.”

Long Term Legal Services

In addition to legal orientation at the border, organizations funded by CDFF provide long term legal services to migrants who are charting a path towards residency in the U.S. Organizations like the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative (CVIIC) provide assistance with naturalization applications, permanent residency renewals, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) renewals. Many of their clients have been in the United States for over ten years. 

According to Jesus Martinez, Executive Director of CVIIC, “Over 325,000 immigrants in the Central Valley are undocumented people who never had the opportunity to regularize their status due to the absence of immigration reform. There are also over 250,000 immigrants in the Central Valley who are permanent residents and are in need of assistance to renew their permanent residency or to apply for citizenship.”

Legal representation at immigration court hearings is another crucial service provided by CDFF’s partner organizations. The legal process of seeking asylum can take several years for some clients, which means a multi-year commitment to a single individual. Lindsay Toczylowski of ImmDef points out that, “Access to legal representation can be the difference between people having a fair shot, or not… having a lawyer by their side can improve their chances of a successful result in their cases by as much as 1100%. The success rate goes from 4% to 48%.”

A multi-year commitment to a single individual means that multi-year funding for organizations is helpful in order to provide consistent and uninterrupted legal services to clients in the migrant community. Liza Diniakos of MILA tells us, “The U.S. government has overwhelming backlogs which prevent swift processing of applications. Long-term funding acknowledges the importance of MILA maintaining its presence for its community.”

Legal Desert

One of the biggest challenges facing legal organizations is the lack of qualified immigration attorneys, especially in rural areas. Large caseloads combined with a shortage of attorneys can lead to overworked staff and burnout, which makes it difficult for organizations to retain attorneys.

Organizations are addressing this issue by implementing innovative strategies to recruit and attract immigration attorneys. To help address the legal services gap in the largely rural Central Valley, in 2019 CVIIC presented a proposal to the California State Legislature to create The California Immigrant Justice Fellowship, which would train, mentor, and place law school graduates with rural organizations.

CVIIC presenting their proposal at the California Assembly Budget Subcommittee Hearing to create The California Immigrant Justice Fellowship, April 3, 2019. 
To help recruit attorneys who can meet the language needs of their clients, ImmDef created a Spanish Language Immersion Program, where new lawyers will learn Spanish at an accelerated pace on the job. Lindsay Toczylowski of ImmDef explains “This first-of-its-kind program will help not only to build capacity within our organization but will also hopefully help create a sustainable model that will drive new legal talent into public service positions serving immigrant communities.”

Organizations could also benefit from funding that would allow them to offer competitive salaries to attract and retain attorneys. Jesus Martinez of CVIIC says, “For years, we have asked the State of California to invest more robustly in improving the organizational capacity of nonprofit legal services providers in our region and help make such organizations more competitive in the immigration attorney marketplace. Philanthropy also needs to make this a priority so that rural regions can be seen as attractive options.”
Thank you for reading this newsletter and learning about the legal services provided by CDFF’s nonprofit partners. We hope you feel inspired by the critical work of organizations like MILA, ImmDef, CVIIC, and Al Otro Lado and are moved to invest in efforts to ensure that immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers have access to the legal services they need.

Join us next month, when we will focus on the challenges faced by unaccompanied minors crossing the border and the work being done by Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) and Legal Services for Children (LSC) to meet their needs.
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