Pathway to citizenship

New non-profit provides low-cost legal help for immigrants countywide
There is a lack of funding for immigrant rights groups.
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There is a lack of funding for immigrant rights groups.

Early in 2018, WalletHub.com, a financial services website, rated Jersey City as the most diverse city in America. With a population that is expected to top 600,000 in the upcoming U.S. Census, the city leads — says the site — in linguistic diversity, with more than 70 languages spoken, and it’s second in ethnic-racial diversity. And U.S. Census figures show that 52.6 percent of Jersey City residents speak a language other than English in the home.

This is part of the reason that Mayor Steven Fulop, in 2017, vowed to protect immigrant residents from non-criminal federal investigations, signing an executive order to give Jersey City “Sanctuary City” status, meaning that city agencies will not cooperate in identifying immigrant residents to federal authorities if it might lead to their being deported. (They will still participate in criminal investigations, but not prosecutions for violating federal immigration law.)

But as many local immigration rights activists have noted, this may not be enough, because federal agents routinely scour the courts for possible undocumented workers, raid work sites, and conduct other operations that are designed to detain immigrants.

A lack of funding for immigrants rights groups, as well as a shortage of legal representation, hinders these immigrants – even in one of the most diverse counties in America.

But this month, a new non-profit office opened to help immigrants throughout the state with legal representation.

The Center for Immigrant Representation opened in Journal Square. Its representatives intend to provide affordable legal services and serving as a guide to helping immigrants obtain citizenship.

It’s open to people throughout the state.

“While we’re not free, we are also not private and profit-driven.”

“Our mission is to increase immigrant access to reliable legal representation by offering high-quality, low-cost services,” said Samuel Dillon, attorney fellow at the Center for Immigrant Representation. “Those will include comprehensive assistance with applications for citizenship, green cards and other immigration benefits as well as deportation defense in immigration court.”

New York judge saw need for legal services

Dillon and center associate Ariela Herzog said the newly opened center has roots in New York City, where a visionary judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York saw the injustice and logistical problems created in the court system when immigrants have no lawyer.

“The judge noticed that the court system was clogged without enough lawyers. This was unjust and unfair.” Dillon said.

The courts needed immigrants to explain their rights to other immigrants.

The judge set up a brainstorming group that came up with a strategy for increasing the amount of counsel available, thus establishing the Immigrant Justice Corps in 2014 that would use college and law school graduations to help – mostly in Manhattan. These students, placed in existing non-profit groups, were trained in immigrant law and offered free legal services to immigrants. This became the parent for the Center for Immigrant Representation.

The non-profit group charges modest fees that will allow it to function financially, and still accommodate the needs of the community.

Although the group looked at other places such as Paterson to launch, the founders decided Jersey City, with its diversity, would be the best place.

While based at 32 Journal Square in Jersey City, the center offers its services to anyone throughout Hudson County and New Jersey.

“We are not limited to Jersey City or even Hudson County,” he said. “There is a need for these services throughout the state. But since we’re a non-profit, we’re not driven by the dollar.”

Lowering the cost for legal representation

Legal services to immigrants are often extremely costly, as is the cost associated with seeking citizenship.

“We’re about serving the immigrants and providing them with the best options,” Herzog said. “While we’re not free, we are also not private and profit-driven.”

The center has flat fees for services. But since each immigration case is different, each will have a different legal cost – depending on complexity and the time needed.

“Our big focus is on applications for citizen and naturalization for a green card,” Dillon said.

The center currently has two attorneys and two college graduates trained in immigration rules.

“New visas and a variety of humanitarian issues make this very labor-intensive sometimes,” he said.

The center has three Spanish-speakers on staff and already has a legal representatives that speaks Chinese. But part of the strategy is to reach out to different community organizations, local universities, and libraries, which might provide interpretative services to other language groups.

Yet ultimately, a person must have a certain level of English proficiency to become a citizen.

One of the features will include a low-cost review of a person’s case for $50. This is a not an hourly rate, but a fixed rate regardless of how long the interview takes.

“Immigration law can be very deceptive,” he said. “While there are a lot of people and groups doing good work in helping immigrants, it is important for people to seek legal advice.

In some cases, it is wise for someone not to seek a green card or citizenship without getting legal advice first since even minor legal infractions could lead a person to deportation.

“Sometimes it can be a trap to apply without a thorough legal review,” Dillon said.

For more information call (201) 492-3078.

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