Last week, an estimated 950,000 young people became immediately eligible to request Deferred Action status and Employment Authorization from the Department of Homeland Security. The status, offered by the Department of Homeland Security to certain undocumented individuals who entered the United States as children and who meet other criteria, will grant them a temporary reprieve from the threat of deportation and the ability to work lawfully in the U.S. Though not permanent legal status, which only the DREAM Act or other legislation passed by Congress could confer, this administratively-granted Deferred Action status represents tangible hope for many young people, and thousands stood in lines last week to be among the first to request the status. In Chicago, at least 13,000 individuals showed up at Navy Pier the Wednesday before last to get help filling out the necessary forms; more than 2,000 were in line by 7:00 AM. Similar events across the country also drew crowds.
The new process has drawn attention to the enormous need for immigration legal services. While some of the forms may seem straightforward, interacting with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, part of what was formerly known as the INS) is much more complicated than simply filling out forms. Without a thorough knowledge of the U.S. immigration laws—which many attorneys consider to be more complex than the U.S. tax code—an individual (even a well-educated native-English speaker) seeking to work their way through the labyrinth of eligibility, forms, and fees can be quickly frustrated. In my role as a legal counselor at World Relief (where folks come after things have gone wrong), I have met many individuals who tried to fill out their own paperwork and wasted their money, delayed their case or, in some cases, actually triggered their own deportation.
That is why I think it is wise that every young person interested in requesting Deferred Action—and anyone seeking to apply for any sort of benefit under the immigration laws—consult with an authorized legal counselor, and why I was a bit dismayed by comments from a few politicians who have stated recently that those seeking benefits did not need an attorney. The reality is that most of the undocumented individuals under the age of 30 in the U.S. right now will not qualify for this Deferred Action policy because they fail to meet one of the other requirements. For someone who does not qualify to apply could both waste their money (the $465 application fee for Employment Authorization) and, since they are undocumented, potentially trigger their deportation. Even for those individuals who do qualify under the new policy’s guidelines, preparing the request incorrectly could cause significant delays. Furthermore, an authorized legal professional can help to screen for other benefits for which those requesting Deferred Action might qualify, which might actually be much better options than Deferred Action, which is only a temporary benefit and does not confer legal status.
What undocumented young people don’t need is a bad lawyer or, even worse, bad legal advice from someone who is merely posing as a lawyer. Unfortunately, there is huge problem known as “notario fraud.” Some notaries public, preying on the fact that a notario in Mexico and many other Latin American countries is an individual with more training than an attorney (whereas acquiring a notary public stamp in the U.S. does not even require high school education), offer immigration legal services that they are not qualified or authorized to provide. Some may mean well—though they are still guilty of unauthorized practice of law and, without adequate training, sometimes give terrible advice that can have disastrous consequences—but others are simply crooks: they tell folks what they are desperate to believe in order to swindle them out of their money. I’ve met individuals who have been scammed out of tens of thousands of dollars by “notarios” or other “consultants” who are not authorized to practice law; I’ve also seen families divided for a decade or more as the result of their incompetent advice.
There’s another category of unauthorized practice of law, though, that I am particularly concerned about as a Christian. Unlike the “notarios” who charge exorbitant fees for advice they are neither competent nor legally authorized to dispense, good-hearted individuals at churches and non-profit ministries often provide legal advice for free. They may not even think of their “assistance” as legal advice: they were just helping to fill out a form. Even determining for someone which form to fill out, though, and for which benefits they qualify under the law, can be giving legal advice. Unless someone is an attorney or an individual who is accredited by the federal Board of Immigration Appeals, it is illegal to give immigration legal advice—and for good reasons. Well-meaning but inadequately-trained individuals can cause irreparable harm by sending in the wrong form. When it’s a pastor or a compassionate woman working from the church basement that inadvertently triggers a deportation and divides a family, it’s also a poor witness. The best way to serve those looking for help is to refer them to a specialized attorney who is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association or to a non-profit organization that is recognized by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA); a helpful online resource for low-cost legal services providers is at www.immigrationlawhelp.org/.
There are other ways that churches can be involved, though, beyond just giving referrals. The National Association of Evangelicals has been encouraging its member churches to help cover the $465 Employment Authorization application fee for young people in their congregations who—unable to work lawfully—may have trouble coming up with the fee. Other churches have opened their facilities for group application preparation workshops—supervised by immigration attorneys BIA-accredited representatives—and trained volunteers to help with tasks other than providing legal advice. Churches can also provide volunteers for non-legal roles for ministries like World Relief that offer authorized legal services at our Immigrant Legal Services programs recognized by the Board of Immigration Appeals all throughout the United States.
For those churches that want to get really involved, it is also possible for a church (or any other non-profit organization) to actually become legally recognized by the BIA and to have staff or volunteers become accredited by the BIA to provide immigration legal advice, even as non-attorneys. That process requires a great deal of training—which World Relief can help to provide, as can other Christian organizations such as the Mennonite Central Committee or the Catholic Legal Immigration Network—as well as some on-the-job shadowing and access to an attorney or fully-accredited representative to provide technical assistance in complex cases. It’s not a ministry for the casual volunteer, but it is possible. World Relief has partnered with various denominations and local churches around the country to provide training and on-the-job shadowing, help with the BIA recognition application, and ongoing technical support from our staff attorneys.
In 1986, when the last large-scale legalization legislation was signed by President Reagan, some churches sought the legal recognition necessary to assist immigrants in filing the paperwork. World Relief helped many of them at the time, and some of my colleagues who have been around for a while tell me that, in many cases, the undocumented immigrants who came to get legal help were entering an evangelical church for the first time in their lives. Many—drawn in by the hospitality of the local church—stayed on, becoming faithful followers of Christ and gaining citizenship in in God’s kingdom (Philippians 3:20) in addition, eventually, to American citizenship. In fact, some of the evangelical denominations that now have the highest percentage of Hispanics within their congregations are the same ones that stood up to help provide legal services in the late 1980s.
My hope is that the Deferred Action policy will be just a first step, and that Congress will pass a comprehensive reform of our immigration laws, including some sort of an earned legalization process, very soon. When they do, my prayer is that the Church will be already prepared to provide authorized, affordable, competent legal services as a tangible expression of Christ’s love.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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