The Inland Empire region of Southern California, east of Los Angeles, is home to over one million foreign-born persons. Comprised of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, the Inland Empire (or the “The IE” as it’s known) has a severe shortage of low-cost, professional immigration legal service providers.
One legal service provider is Catholic Charities of San Bernardino & Riverside Counties’ (CCSB/R). Their Refugee and Immigration Services department has been assisting clients with immigration and refugee matters in the Inland Empire since 1975. The home office in San Bernardino was recognized by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) in 1998. Program Director, My-Hanh Luu, and Citizenship Coordinator, Elsa Ornelas, are both fully accredited BIA representatives. Recognition and accreditation credential these non-attorneys as immigration legal representatives before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. My-Hanh and her team have provided invaluable assistance to the community over the years. They have assisted with citizenship applications and provided citizenship classes. They have also assisted with family-based immigration, refugee resettlement, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), interpretation, and more. Last year, CCSB/R provided immigration legal services to over 1,000 people and provided resettlement services to almost 100 refugees.
My-Hanh and her team knew they could help even more people in the region with some additional capacity. However, in order to expand services to satellite offices on a consistent basis, CCSB/R needed to invest heavily in training additional staff to become BIA accredited representatives at those sites. Funding was always an issue, and the right opportunity to expand never seemed to present itself.
CLINIC also recognized the need to help more people in the Inland Empire. In early 2014 CLINIC joined Ready California, a coalition of California non-profit organizations dedicated to preparing for comprehensive immigration reform. One of the main goals of Ready California is to increase legal capacity. To that end, CLINIC was able to offer free legal training to CCSB/R and other organizations throughout the state. CCSB/R pounced on the opportunity. They decided to use it as springboard to expand services to satellite offices in Indio, Ontario, Moreno Valley, and Riverside. CCSB/R is now seeking to have all of those offices recognized by the BIA. CCSB/R put several people through the CLINIC training, two of whom -- Oras Mohammed and Simona Botezatu -- are pursuing BIA partial accreditation at these expanded locations.
Oras is a refugee from Iraq where she survived multiple attempts on her life. She was in danger after she worked as a contractor with the U.S. Army as an editor and news broadcaster in Baghdad. On one occasion, assailants shot up her father’s home while she and her family were inside. Oras had no choice but to flee Baghdad. She could not stay in one place for too long and she eventually left the country. She passed through Syria and Egypt but was unable to find stability. She eventually returned to the Kurdish region of Iraq where she was able to apply for and receive a Special Immigrant Visa based on her work with the U.S. Army. Oras was resettled in the Inland Empire by CCSB/R where she was later hired to work with other refugees. According to Oras, “I really want to help people to resettle and with their immigration issues because I’ve been through the process and know how hard it is.”
Simona, on the other hand, immigrated to the United States from Romania in 2002. She developed a strong interest in immigration matters after volunteering with victims of human trafficking in San Diego. Her journey led her to Boston where she became a BIA accredited representative at Catholic Charities of Boston. She felt a great sense of accomplishment when she became accredited and looks forward to feeling that again at CCSB/R. She sees her accreditation as the best way to help her clients. “I just want to give my clients the best possible advice,” said Simona.
When the BIA approves these new recognition and accreditation applications, CCSB/R and My-Hanh will finally realize their goal of expanding their vital services throughout the Inland Empire. This will go a long way towards increasing needed legal capacity and meeting the needs of the community.
“We really want to help the people of our community, who often don’t have enough money for an attorney or are vulnerable to being taken advantage of by notarios (i.e. unauthorized practitioners),” said My-Hanh.
*Martin Gauto is Field Support Coordinator at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC)