A welcoming presence

Issue December 2014 By Mike Vigneux

IIIC helps immigrants integrate into society

When uprisings and violence engulfed Syria two years ago, sisters Marine and Vana were forced to make a difficult decision. Their family in Aleppo was specifically targeted by a rebel group because of their Armenian heritage and Christian religion. Many of their friends had even been killed. Leaving family members behind, the two sisters decided to flee Syria for the United States, afraid and not knowing what the future might hold.

After a few months in the U.S., the two sisters sought help for their situation through the Irish International Immigrant Center in Boston (IIIC), a nonprofit organization founded in 1989, which assists immigrants from Ireland and around the world as they integrate into American society. Knowing it would be extremely dangerous for the sisters to return to Syria, the IIIC helped them apply for temporary protected status, which had just recently been announced for Syrians.

In just a few months of working with IIIC, the sisters received employment authorization, and their temporary protected status applications were granted this past May. Marine, an economist, and Vana, a pharmacist, are eager to return to school and fulfill both career and personal aspirations that were taken away from them in Syria. Thanks to the work of the IIIC, those dreams are now a reality.

Immigration and Citizenship Legal Services Program

Integral to the overall success of the IIIC is its Immigration and Citizenship Legal Services Program, which provides free legal consultations to immigrants, refugees and asylees in the Greater Boston area. The Massachusetts Bar Foundation (MBF), the philanthropic partner of the MBA, has helped sustain the program by providing a grant each year through its IOLTA Grants Program since 2001. The program has once again been funded by the MBF for the current year.

"The MBF has proudly funded the important work of the IIIC, because we know what a critical lifeline their legal assistance can provide to individuals and families who need their help," said MBF President Robert J. Ambrogi. "Of the various issues we support, immigration-related legal aid remains one of the MBF's highest priorities."

Started in 1994, the program holds free, drop-in legal clinics four times per month at the IIIC's Boston office, and at community locations, such as the Green Briar Pub in Brighton, St. Mark's Parish in Dorchester and the Laboure Health Center in South Boston. Clients meet with either a staff attorney from the IIIC or one of their 15 pro bono attorneys for consultation on any immigration law issue. The IIIC has five full-time attorneys on staff whose positions are funded in part by the MBF grant.

"Funding is extremely vital," said Jeannie Kain, managing attorney at the IIIC. "We wouldn't be able to provide the services if we didn't have funding like we get from the Mass. Bar Foundation and other sources."

Navigating immigration law

The primary purpose of the clinics is to provide information to clients about complex immigration issues they may be facing. These issues may include areas such as obtaining a green card, applying for permanent residency, family reunification cases, applying for temporary protected status and becoming a U.S. citizen. Some client cases are taken for full representation by the IIIC in front of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The program annually serves 1,240 immigrants with full case representation for 250. Clients come from more than 120 nations, including Ireland, Haiti, the Middle East, and Central and South America; more than one-third are asylees or refugees from Africa. Founded by a group of Irish immigrants and funded in part by the Irish government, the IIIC also works with partner organizations to promote reconciliation in Ireland.

Every 18 months the IIIC serves many Haitian clients seeking to renew their temporary protected status, which was given after Haiti suffered a catastrophic earthquake in 2010.

Almost all of the IIIC clients are indigent and some are homeless. Most do not have an advanced understanding of the complexities of immigration law and obtaining citizenship. In many cases, the IIIC provides the only road map for navigating such a confusing landscape.

"Immigration laws are so complicated and the stakes are really high," added Kain. "If you screw up on your green card application you could get deported."

The physical change

During her two and half years as an attorney at the IIIC, Kain has seen the full spectrum of cases and clients. Many of her clients seeking asylum and refugee status come to the U.S. with absolutely nothing, often fleeing with one suitcase while leaving their family behind. Kain notes that it is remarkable to witness the physical change that many of her clients go through.

At their first appointment, many clients exhibit body language that indicates a "down and out" demeanor due to the overwhelming nature and uncertainty of the situation. However, the peace of mind gained from going through the process of becoming a citizen and being able to vote and participate in society has a significant effect on their personal appearance. By the end, that initial demeanor has vanished and the new person is almost unrecognizable according to Kain. The personal impact is immeasurable.

"I went to law school because I wanted to help people and I wanted to really have an impact on the world," said Kain. "I feel like you have that when you do this type of work."

A constant challenge

While the IIIC helps transform many lives, it still faces ongoing challenges. Immigration law is a complex subject area, which can often be politically charged. Language barriers and cultural differences can also make for a challenging clientele to work with. Funding for this type of work has decreased dramatically in recent years, including from the MBF IOLTA Grants Program, so the IIIC is constantly seeking new resources to keep IIIC's critical programs going.

Unlike criminal law, there is no public defender system in immigration law and many immigrants go unrepresented as they face dire consequences such as being deported. Continuing to provide access to representation for immigrants, asylees and refugees is a constant concern for the IIIC. Without the vital services that the IIIC provides, many of its clients would be left to their own devices while facing an uncertain future.

"Our legal system is only as good as the access that you have to it," said Kain. "Unfortunately, immigration law is very inaccessible to most people. Without legal services and pro bono assistance, these people do not have access to our system of government and justice."