Immigration Groups Stretched

No matter how welcoming the Statue of Liberty may seem, she doesn’t offer the one thing just about all immigrants require — legal advice. Instead, the nonprofit organizations that assist immigrants in all areas of adjusting to American life are often charged with the crucial task of providing much of that information.

But in the wake of the September 11 attacks, those nonprofits have been swamped with questions regarding every nuance of immigration law, from extending visa status to determining eligibility for benefits. The trouble is, answers are hard to provide.

Most nonprofits that assist immigrants don’t have a dedicated legal staff for pro-bono work. Instead, they provide general information and refer clients to an organization such as the Legal Aid Society, which will either handle the issue or find someone at a private law firm who will.

“We’ve been just inundated with calls,” said Janet Sabel at the Legal Aid Society’s immigration department in New York City. “There’s a vastly greater demand for services than nonprofits could possibly pick up.”

Problems for clients generally fall into three categories: immigration status; benefit eligibility questions; and detainment issues. The nonprofits also face a host of challenges, primarily stemming from the need to provide additional services in an environment in which funding is harder to come by.

And, none of these issues are limited to organizations that focus on the Afghan or even Arab population. Indeed, they span all ethnicities and reasons for immigration.

Peppering the slew of calls from unemployed restaurant workers the Japanese American Social Services (JASS) has received after the attacks were a few more unusual conundrums. One call was from a young Japanese woman in the United States on a student visa. She had planned on returning to Japan before her visa expired. But after the attacks, the young woman was terrified of flying and instead overstayed her visa.

While the chances of a Japanese student being hunted down by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) are slim, once she’s found out (for instance, when she does try to return home) the penalties can be harsh, according to Mari Sakaji, JASS’s director.

If someone overstays a visa by six months, they’re deported and not allowed back in the country — on any type of visa — for three years. If someone is found to have overstayed a federally sanctioned welcome more than a year, the person would also be deported and not permitted to return for 10 years.

JASS is ill-equipped to take up cases such as these from a legal standpoint. Instead, the problems are often tackled from another angle. The organization has sponsored several support groups for their clients, run by therapists, social workers and professors. The groups provide an outlet for clients to talk to professionals about concerns that could affect their legal status, as well as provide information.

An example of the information available is how anthrax can be weaponized and what the symptoms of exposure are — which might be otherwise hard for immigrants to assimilate.

The JASS group has had to add these programs in the midst of a funding crunch. A benefit dinner starring Japanese singer Takiko Kato was indefinitely postponed when the performer decided she was too nervous to fly, particularly into New York City. The fundraising performance and dinner, in honor of the organization’s 20th anniversary, was projected to have brought in some $70,000. The organization now faces a shortfall. “Trying to maintain our regular services is hard enough,” Sakaji said. “It’s really difficult to take on anything else.”

Even organizations that are specifically qualified to handle such issues, as the Legal Aid Society is, are facing a demand for their services that can’t be easily met. In addition to fielding calls from immigrants confused as to their status and eligibility for benefits, Legal Aid is doggedly working on aiding the many immigrants now being detained. Most of them are Arabs detained on immigration issues, albeit a likely result of September 11.

Once criminal charges are brought, they’re eligible for public defenders. In the meantime, though, many have been detained upwards of six weeks. “Some have valid visas, some are seeking asylum,” Sabel said. “Right now, we’re just attempting to contact people who have been detained, and work with counselors at the detention center to have them encourage the detainees to call us.”

Once the detainees are identified and contacted by Legal Aid, the organization attempts to find lawyers who operate in the private sector to donate some time to a case. “The fact that that process seems systematic to us shows how bad the situation is,” Sabel said of the chaos the excess demand has caused.

In addition to the demand for legal services, nonprofits that work with immigrants have been called on to perform other tasks outside their typical services. The International Center in New York (ICNY), which primarily focuses on assisting with English literacy, had to put on hold a joint venture with the Arab American Family Support Center. Instead of implementing its English classes and health seminars, the ICNY ended up sending its volunteers out to go grocery shopping for Muslim women that were too nervous to leave their homes.

The organization, which counts 2,500 international students, immigrants and other foreign nationals as members, saw an 8 percent increase in the number of people requesting services in October. In addition to its typical services, the ICNY has also hosted three sessions in which members can talk about their fears and ask questions.

The ICNY is also struggling with a revenue shortfall this year, despite a successful annual fundraiser on October 10 that brought in $250,000. Its United Way grant, determined after September 11, came in far below what the organization had expected. The ICNY had asked for $50,000 and received just $10,000. Last year, the organization had asked for $25,000 and received $15,000, a far better ratio. “The competition for funds between relief organizations and development organizations is hardly new,” said Debbie Meyer, the ICNY’s director of development. “But the pressure to demonstrate our relevance has taken on a new importance this year.”


Beverly Goodman is a freelance writer who has worked for Money and Red Herring magazines.