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Starting a Legal Immigration Program: Capacity Building in a Charitable Community Agency

The Need for Charitable Legal Immigration Services

Current capacity does not meet current demands for low-cost legal representation in immigration matters. For instance, immigrants eligible and soon-to-be eligible to naturalize as U.S. citizens have less income, education, and English language ability than immigrants who naturalized in previous decades.

It is expected that any significant changes in current immigration law will greatly increase demand for services. One possible change is comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) with an earned pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11.9 million undocumented immigrants2 (commonly referred to as “legalization”).

Lawyers working in private practice and at nonprofit agencies are the major legal service providers to persons in need of legal representation, including non-citizens seeking immigration-related services. Lawyers specifically concentrating in the field of immigration law include the 11,000 members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, as well as thousands of others who focus on immigration law as their primary practice area. For lowincome immigrants, however, legal representation through the private bar is often not an affordable option, as Legal Services Corporation (LSC) “alienage” restrictions on LSC-funded agencies prevent them from providing low-cost services to many non-citizens, including most of the undocumented.

Because of these limitations, many low-income immigrants seek services from other nonprofit agencies, many of which are faith-based and often provide a wide array of both social and legal services. In many instances, these agencies are staffed by non-attorney legal workers who
provide both counseling and direct services to clients. In the field of immigration law, non-attorney legal workers may be authorized to provide legal services to the same extent as an attorney if they become what is known as an “accredited representative” and work for a nonprofit agency
that has applied for and received “recognized agency status.”

Information about the requirements for obtaining this status is included in Appendix 1. To date, there are approximately 700 nonprofit offices with recognized agency status, and approximately 650 persons with accredited representative status. Nearly one-third of the recognized agencies are
affiliate programs of CLINIC.