Syracuse, New York has a long history as an immigrant gateway city, and was home to many immigrants from Italy, Germany, Ireland, Ukraine, and Russia who arrived in the U.S. at the turn of the 19th century. More recently, Syracuse, through Catholic Charities and another local resettlement agency, has welcomed thousands of refugees from Burma, Bhutan, Burundi, and many other countries. About 550 refugees were resettled in Syracuse last year by Catholic Charities alone. Today, Catholic Charities of Onondaga County (Syracuse) houses its refugee resettlement and immigration program in a center that once served Italian and German youth.
While Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement services have existed for many years, the immigration legal program is new, and has grown remarkably over the last three years since it was established. The program now has Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) recognition, several partially accredited BIA representatives, and a robust, state-funded citizenship initiative offering both legal and educational services. BIA recognition and accreditation, the Department of Justice’s certification of nonprofit, legal immigration service agencies and staff, is critical for immigration legal programs.
Recognizing an unmet need for charitable legal immigration services in Syracuse, Catholic Charities applied to CLINIC in 2011 for capacity building funds, and was selected to receive a two-year grant. With this grant, the agency proposed to start a citizenship legal program and a citizenship education program. CLINIC administered the grant with flow-through funding from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Office of Citizenship and provided training and technical assistance.
Catholic Charities planned to house the immigration program within the agency’s refugee resettlement program and share some of the staff. The agency needed to apply for BIA recognition. Four staff members, including the program director, were designated to obtain BIA accreditation and began taking the required trainings.
Catholic Charities already had a good relationship with the Syracuse School District, and planned to recruit students through the schools. Citizenship classes began in January 2012. The agency hired an experienced instructor to conduct the citizenship classes at its office, which is conveniently located in a neighborhood close to where the students live. The agency recruited volunteer tutors to assist with the classes.
At the conclusion of the grant in September 2013, Catholic Charities had well-developed citizenship education and legal services, and had served over 200 clients from 20 countries. Catholic Charities was able to sustain and grow the legal services through a 2012 grant from the New York State Office for New Americans (ONA) that runs until 2015. The grant funded Catholic Charities, in partnership with several other local service providers, to create and house a “New Americans Opportunity Center” that provides wrap-around services for immigrant integration. Catholic Charities also received a state grant in September 2012 to provide legal services to Cubans and Haitians.
Today, the legal program is staffed by six BIA accredited representatives, including the program director. Their accreditation greatly improves the agency’s capacity to serve immigration clients who speak these languages. Staff focuses on assisting clients with citizenship, green cards, and family reunification applications. Catholic Charities anticipates filing over 200 citizenship applications this year and a similar number of green card applications. The agency has also made inroads with the immigrant population and is serving increasing numbers of Latino immigrants as word spreads about the immigration services.
The citizenship education program currently offers ongoing citizenship classes five days a week at the Catholic Charities office. Level 1 and Level 2 classes are offered. The classes have been taught by the same, experienced instructor since they began, and the instructor obtained BIA accreditation in February 2014. The program utilizes volunteers to provide support services such as child care and tutoring for students who need extra help.
When asked why she comes to work each day, Program Director, Felicia Castricone replies: “I really admire the refugees for their resilience and strength.”
CLINIC is inspired by the efforts of Catholic Charities’ immigration program and looks forward to its continued growth!
*Laura Burdick is a Field Support Coordinator and manages CLINIC’s National Capacity Building Project