By Tim Ruzak
May 11, 2010
Martha Diaz splits her time every week in Austin, Albert Lea and Owatonna offering legal services to immigrants.
Her time appears to be highly sought after, especially since she became accredited in early March to do immigration legal work.
Diaz, who speaks Spanish and English and formerly worked as a certified court interpreter for Minnesota's Third Judicial Circuit, now serves as an immigration services caseworker for Catholic Charities. She recently was accredited to do the work by the U.S. Department of Justice's Board of Immigration Appeals.
Immigration law allows Diaz and other non-attorneys to practice immigration law, but they first need to be accredited and work for certain, recognized agencies. The Board of Immigration Appeals also recently granted agency status to Catholic Charities, which serves 20 counties across southern Minnesota.
Immigrations service furthers Catholic Charities' mission to reach out to the "marginalized, the alienated and the stranger throughout our diocese," said Robert Tereba, executive director of Catholic Charities.
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Winona started the program earlier this year to provide legal services to immigrants at its offices in Austin, Albert Lea and Owatonna. It's open to anyone for a nominal fee.
Diaz underwent extensive training in immigration law, and Catholic Charities had to demonstrate its organizational capacity to effectively support the new program.
In the program, Diaz offers assistance with family visa services, adjustment of status and citizenship services, among other areas. She is seeing a big push with people trying to become U.S. citizens, mainly refugees from Sudan and Cuba.
Out of all her services, the three biggest taskes involve renewing alien registration cards, citizenship and employment authorization, Diaz said.
Matters that are beyond the program's service area are referred to immigration attorneys outside of Catholic Charities. The new program doesn't represent people in immigration court for criminal matters. Diaz mainly helps people fill out documents and takes them through the steps of processes.
She also gathers information for people, including those facing deportation, and gives advice on what they can do.
In Austin, Diaz does her work at the Welcome Center, a nonprofit that serves newcomers to the community.
Last year, Diaz served 130 people in Austin, mainly with passport issues and other questions. She estimates that her client load might double with the expansion of her services.
The program's goal is to "provide competent, authorized and affordable legal services to immigrants," said Tereba. "Clarifying the legal status of immigrants will promote their well-being and security, and the well-being and security of their families."