Fearing that immigrants may run out of time to renew or gain legal status under threat from policies imposed by President Donald Trump, members of the Hudson County Board of Freeholders hope to amend their contract with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) to provide legal services.
The AFL-CIO, one of the most powerful labor organizations in the country, is working with “We are one New Jersey” (WAONJ) to provide services to immigrants seeking legalized status or citizenship.
“The problem is that we cannot offer legal advice.” – AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech
The group also offers Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) application assistance to help immigrant students attend and pay for school, wage advocacy on behalf of immigrant workers, notary services, and citizenship loans.
“The problem is that we cannot offer legal advice,” said New Jersey AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech at the March 21 freeholder caucus. This comes at a time when there is a sharp rise in the number of immigrants seeking services from the WAONJ center on Bergen Avenue in Jersey City, said Julie Burnell, executive director.
According to federal law, a group must have a certified immigration lawyer on staff or need to partner with a community organization with such a lawyer.
Freeholder Bill O’Dea said the county can amend its contract with the center to allow the center to partner with some local group that has a full time attorney.
“Even those here with legal permits are scared,” said O’Dea. “We do not know if there will be a change in their status. So the faster we can act to get these people to become citizens, the better off they will be.”
The current contract with the union-backed center expires in September.
O’Dea said amending the existing contract would save time and allows the center to expand its services more quickly.
Anxiety is on the rise
“We have seen a dramatic increase of walk in registrations in Hudson County,” Burnell said. “There have been double the requests for people needing to renew their legal status and to start the process for becoming U.S. citizens.”
She believes this is a direct result of the election of Trump on a wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric and increased enforcement by immigration authorities.
She said while the actual rate of citizenship has slowed during this period, this is largely a result of complicated cases that require more time to deal with. But she said she expects overall requests will triple.
Although located in Jersey City, the center provides services to immigrants throughout Hudson County. New Jersey has some of the highest numbers of legal immigrants in the country with about 100,000 living in Hudson County. Many legal immigrants want to become U.S. citizens, but either can’t afford the process or find other obstacles such as legal or language as barriers. The application process costs nearly $700, and while the center can provide assistance free, finding legal help can be much more costly.
While the center can provide free legal counsel throughout the application process and a free 10-week class to prepare applicants for the citizenship exam, it cannot give necessary legal advice without a certified legal attorney and that complicates the process.
She said the center needs legal services to help offset some of the actions taken by the federal government.
Burnell said another critical issue in the process is the language barrier.
While many immigrants seeking citizenship can deal with the civics portion of the process, many do not speak English well enough and so often get entangled with the extensive interviews that are part of becoming a citizenship. She said the center needs people to help provide English as a Second Language classes – in both Spanish as well as Middle Eastern languages.
O’Dea and Freeholder Junior Maldonado suggested that the county meet with representatives from New Jersey City University to seek students that might offer these courses as volunteers or for credit as community service
“If we do not act to help people quickly, people with legal permanent status might even be at risk,” O’Dea said.
AFL-CIO President Wowkanech he would seek out possible partners and come back to the county to amend its contract as soon as possible.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.