Powerful Partnerships: Brokering Legal Assistance for Immigrant Families

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Most of The Children’s Aid Society’s 20 community schools are located in neighborhoods with large numbers of immigrant families and responding to their multiple needs is central to the work of community schools. Our earliest effort to address their legal challenges − the development of a school-based immigration center at P.S. 5 − turned out to be unsustainable, due to the project’s high cost. Children’s Aid is now responding to this population’s need for reliable legal advice by providing school-based immigration clinics through a partnership between The Children’s Aid Society and the New York City BAR Justice Center.

According to Alma Whitford, Children’s Aid’s Associate Director for Community Schools, the BAR Justice Center is pleased with this collaboration because the Center had tried to provide this service previously to areas in need but had not gotten the desired response, due perhaps to lack of community trust or effective outreach mechanisms. “Immigrant families are a very vulnerable group and, right or wrong, they live in constant fear of fake attorneys or entrapment by the Immigration Service. Our schools have earned the trust of immigrant families,” she said. “The community knows that we will keep their information confidential. Even the lawyers they meet with do not have access to their contact information. When there is need for follow up, the lawyers get in touch with my office and we contact the client.”

For many residents, the community schools symbolize safe havens where they can speak honestly and be assured of getting both respect and assistance. Children’s Aid’s Parent Coordinators − trusted community leaders based at each school − regularly survey parents about their needs and reliable immigration advice often tops the list. “Usually the quickest way to respond is by providing workshops about the complexities of immigration laws, mostly organized by our own Office of Public Policy and Client Advocacy.

The first formal clinic was held at one of our Washington Heights schools in March 2008; approximately 70 clients met with 25 BAR lawyers and 12 certified translators over a four-hour period, all pro bono. The BAR provided the attorneys, and Children’s Aid organized logistics and recruited the translators and the clients. The community and the BAR expressed enormous satisfaction, and a second clinic was held in January 2009. This time, there were not only the same number of lawyers, some working in pairs, but also BAR interns who profited from attending the consultation. There were also a larger number of certified translators. Sixty-eight families attended.

At the request of the BAR Center, a subsequent clinic will be held this May. This collaborative effort has become a win-win for all involved; this is true particularly for the families, who can receive free top quality advice in a confidential manner and may get referrals to trustworthy organizations willing to take their cases on a pro bono or sliding-scale basis.

One community resident is in the process of bringing her niece, who lost both parents, to the U.S. from her country of origin. She adopted the girl to expedite the process but still endured many unforeseen complications. “I was very frustrated. Now I have a more realistic idea of what to expect and things are moving faster than before. This free legal advice has truly saved me time and money, but, even more important, it has given me peace of mind.”