The Midwest has a history as a gateway for immigrants even if not as heralded as port cities in the east and west. Think of Chicago with its diverse ethnic population as early as the late 1800’s, especially among Eastern Europeans, that continues today with the largest Bosnian refugee population in the country. Think also of Detroit, Motor City, at the turn of the last century when Ford Motor Company attracted immigrant workers from Southern Europe and the Middle East to build the earliest automobiles. Detroit now has the largest Middle Eastern population in the United States, most recently welcoming tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees.
Indianapolis, albeit smaller than Chicago and Metro Detroit, is another Midwest city with a growing immigrant population. Catholic Charities of Indianapolis is expanding the city’s welcome for many New Americans. In recent years, Catholic Charities of Indianapolis has resettled over 500 refugees on an annual basis; people recognized by the U.S. government as requiring safety from persecution in their country of origin. Other nonprofits in the city are welcoming more refugees, thereby increasing the number and diversity of the population. In response to crises around the world – whether in Burma, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, or Democratic Republic of Congo - Indianapolis is giving a safe haven and a fresh start to some of the world’s most vulnerable persons. Indianapolis also has a growing number of other immigrants, particularly Hispanics, who have arrived to join close relatives and work in jobs not easily filled.
While the city prospers with additional young workers paying taxes and refurbishing older homes, there is an accompanying need for affordable immigration legal representation. This is particularly true for low-income wage earners who too easily fall prey to the wrong type of help by unauthorized practitioners or see highly priced, private attorneys as their only option.
Catholic Charities developed an agency-wide strategic plan that recognized this need. In 2011, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC) invited Catholic Charities’ leadership to a one-day seminar on how to start and sustain a charitable-based immigration legal program that would augment its existing and highly successful refugee resettlement program. Catholic Charities embraced the idea, began to follow CLINIC’s “road map” to build a program and joined CLINIC’s network, becoming one of its 250 affiliates in 46 states and over 330 cities, the largest network of its kind in the country.
CLINIC was able to facilitate Catholic Charities’ program development by raising funds for capacity building from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Office of Citizenship . These funds for naturalization legal services and citizenship preparation classes were aimed at increasing the number of naturalized citizens in underserved communities. Catholic Charities successfully competed nationally for the two-year funds through CLINIC and began implementing its legal and educational services for aspiring citizens.
“Becoming an immigration legal representative at a Catholic nonprofit is one of the biggest surprises of my life,” says Tim Winn, Immigration Program Supervisor at Catholic Charities of Indianapolis. Tim’s academic background prior to joining Catholic Charities was a degree in religious studies and art. Refugee resettlement seemed like a worthwhile and intriguing job for someone looking to serve others. “Working for several years with refugees and seeing their many talents but also needs, including legal services to reunite their families and become engaged citizens, inspired me to learn U.S. immigration law and how to be a competent and ethical legal representative. I love what I do.” Although Tim doesn’t have a law degree, he is an accredited representative who is authorized to practice immigration law and represent immigrants in administrative proceedings by the Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).
Tim and his colleague, Flor Bickel – a native Spanish speaker who is also a BIA accredited representative – each successfully completed more than 40 hours of CLINIC immigration law and management training. They were assisted by the talents of two attorneys from Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic (NCLC) who offered legal supervision and direct services. In addition, “Having Mike McCarthy as our Volunteer Coordinator has definitely increased our visibility and capacity to serve more people. Our naturalization workshops joining would-be citizens with trained volunteers to complete Applications for Naturalization have been a big success,” says Tim. The focus of their efforts is those seeking to become U.S. citizens and reunite with families. This continues to be the backbone of the program’s scope of services, aided by strong community partnerships with NCLC, two Burmese refugee community centers, Catholic parishes, libraries, Indiana University Maurer School of Law and volunteers.
As Catholic Charities’ expertise and affordable services became more widely known, Flor became full-time, Tim became the Immigration Legal Program Supervisor following completion of his Master’s in Business Administration degree, and Christine Sego Caldwell was hired in 2014 as the program’s first attorney. A second attorney is expected to be hired in the year.
Increased staff time, broader management and legal knowledge, and new services are capacity building benchmarks for a charitable immigration legal program. As Tim states, “Legal support is very helpful to me because I run into complicated issues. CLINIC’s training and technical support quickly help us solve problems and implement proven best practices used by more experienced charitable programs around the country. With CLINIC’s experts and rich material I feel like I’m on the inside of my profession. I can see how my management of our limited financial resources and staff time have improved and made a positive and long-lasting difference in the lives of our immigrant clients.”
Tim, Flor, Mike and Christine plan to be busy this year helping more young people eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)  – those who qualify for work authorization and relief from deportation because they were brought to the U.S. as minors in the care of their undocumented parents. Renewal for the two-year status is up for the first time this year and new applicants are welcome to apply, including those who are aging into eligibility. More students are attending citizenship classes at Level I and graduating into Level II as they ready themselves to take the citizenship test and Oath of Allegiance. Refugees continue to be served with petitions to USCIS to reunify husbands, wives, and minor children separated by war, genocide, and political upheavals. Also on the staff’s “to do” list is to prepare for comprehensive immigration reform when Congresses passes a bill that will hopefully make immigration in the U.S. more relevant to the nation’s labor force needs, humanize and add fairness to the system, and grant legal status to an estimated 40,000 undocumented immigrants living in Indianapolis and surrounding cities.
CLINIC is proud of what Catholic Charities of Indianapolis has done in a few, short years. Positive capacity building outcomes like this one give CLINIC confidence to assist more nonprofits, Catholic and others, to build charitable immigration legal services.
*Mr. Chenoweth is the Director of CLINIC's Center for Citizenship and Immigrant Communities