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An Immigration Program Grows in Brooklyn

Feb 27, 2014
Jeff Chenoweth

Brooklyn is one of the nation’s most vibrant metropolitan areas with a dense and multi-ethnic population.  Its immigrant history is storied as in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, an American literary classic. With a large foreign-born population there is a growing need for affordable immigration legal services specifically for people with low-incomes. For that reason, CLINIC, other nonprofit organizations, and immigrant advocates joined to start such a program in Brooklyn.

The story begins when Roy and Judy Larsen return to the East Coast after serving for decades in Africa as public health workers on behalf of the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA), a church with deep Scandinavian immigrant roots in the United States.  Roy studies the ethnic populations of the urban East Coast and learns that access to accurate immigration information and immigration legal representation are high priorities, especially for Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic speakers in an EFCA church in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn. 

Their first encounter with a national support organization is World Relief, the relief and development arm of the National Association of Evangelicals.  At the same time, Alex Mandes, working for the EFCA’s national office, is seeking ways to open church-supported, immigration legal offices in communities of need and Marco A. “Tony” Ramos, a national EFCA board member and Laredo, TX-based immigration attorney, is also sharing his testimony as to why he supports comprehensive immigration reform and legalization for the undocumented as part of his overall religious and politically conservative views. 

Moving from thought to action, Roy and Judy Larsen take an intensive, 40-hour, 5-day immigration law course sponsored by the Mennonite Central Committee in Ephrata, PA.  They then join Tony Ramos at his private practice in Laredo for two-weeks of “on-the-job” training.  Returning home, Roy and Judy are referred by CLINIC to volunteer one day a week for 9 months at Catholic Charities of Allentown, PA’s Refugee and Immigration Department.  There, they receive professional training from two non-attorneys, Ms. Jennifer Clerici and Jennifer Zurek, authorized to practice immigration law under federal Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) agency recognition and staff accreditation.  From these two experienced legal representatives Roy and Judy learn what accredited non-attorneys can do to help low-income immigrants.  Roy says their time spent at Catholic Charities of Allentown created a “great bond” between them that continues to the present.

Next enter Howard and Claudia Williams who return from abroad for state-side church service.  CLINIC directs them to volunteer near their home at Catholic Family and Community Services of Paterson, NJ under the supervision of Fr. Michael Burke, Esq., a Catholic priest and a lawyer with over twenty years of experience practicing immigration law.

Together, Roy, Judy, Howard, Claudia and a young EFCA missionary, Ben Johnson, all become BIA accredited representatives authorized to legally represent immigrants as part of a nonprofit’s charitable mission statement.  CLINIC and World Relief’s Board of Immigration Appeals Recognition and Accreditation Step by Step Guide makes the process clear and CLINIC’s Capacity Building Section Director, Jeff Chenoweth, coaches them through the BIA application process towards approval.

These five, newly approved accredited representatives gather at a recently established nonprofit called Immigrant Hope – Brooklyn, NY attached to an EFCA church near the Verrazano Bridge.  One of the church’s members is Lisa Yeung, a Chinese-speaking immigration attorney, lending her time to oversee the newly established immigration legal program. Immigrant Hope begins to assist people from over 25 countries with applications for family reunification, green cards, naturalization, and religious workers from other countries to serve their church in the United States. 

Recognizing the many legal and programmatic challenges of managing Immigrant Hope, the staff decides in 2011 to join CLINIC. Through CLINIC, Immigrant Hope staff and volunteers have access to a wide-array of training, attorney-of-the-day helpline, program management consultations, and other forms of technical support.  All five legal staff continues to take classroom, webinar, and e-learning trainings from CLINIC to advance their knowledge of immigration law.  Roy says, “We are meeting all kinds of wonderful people at CLINIC.  We are truly grateful for their excellent training and technical support.”

Empowered by the positive experience opening a program in Brooklyn, Howard and Claudia open an office in Clifton, NJ.  This is in keeping with the EFCA’s expansion plan. Next on EFCA’s list are the cities of Atlanta, GA, Lebanon, PA and Santa Barbara, CA.

And so, an immigration program grows in Brooklyn and elsewhere.  As noted above, CLINIC and other nonprofit organizations and immigrant advocates joined their passions and talents on behalf of Immigrant Hope.  The cast of characters in this story include: returning health workers and missionaries from Africa; a recent college graduate  living in Brooklyn; national EFCA church leaders in Minneapolis and San Antonio; national staff at World Relief in Baltimore; Mennonites in Ephrata, PA; a private attorney in Laredo; two immigration counselors at Catholic Charities in Allentown; a priest/immigration lawyer at Catholic Family and Community Services in Paterson; and CLINC staff in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Oakland – a broad and diverse collaboration working to build capacity at the local level.

* Jeff Chenoweth is the Director of CLINIC's Center for Citizenship and Immigrant Communities