March 9, 2012

New Catholic Charities program offers legal services to immigrants and refugees

By John Shaughnessy

Gabrielle Campo has often been inspired—and sometimes frustrated—in her work for the archdiocese to help immigrants and refugees live their dreams of a better life in the United States.

Her inspiration comes in the memory of her late grandfather, who arrived in the United States on July 4, 1921, at the age of 8—an Italian immigrant who grew up to serve in the U.S. Navy, marry, work as a factory foreman and head a family of nine children and 34 grandchildren.

Her frustration has sometimes come as she has tried to do everything possible for the immigrants and refugees who seek help from the archdiocese's Refugee Resettlement Program—frustrations that arose from people seeking legal services and the program not having the capabilities to assist with legal issues.

"I'd get six calls a week from people asking for legal help," says Campo, director of the archdiocese's Refugee Resettlement Program. "They were calls about visas for fiancées, trying to get a family member over here, and just general legal questions."

Yet, those frustrations have faded considerably since the beginning of 2012 when Catholic Charities Indianapolis added legal help and advice to the services it can offer immigrants, refugees and people seeking asylum in the United States.

"When you look into the community, there are not a lot of service providers providing legal services for immigrants," Campo says. "There are private attorneys, but their costs are exorbitant and immigrants can't afford it. It's exciting that we're responding to a need."

Those services have already helped in a dramatic situation involving two young people from Syria who are seeking asylum in the United States because of the killings and human rights violations in their native country.

"They came here for education, and they have a desire to go back home, but they fear for their lives," says Tim Winn, manager of legal services. "They don't feel safe about going home."

More common legal situations involve assisting people as they apply for permanent residency in the United States, petitioning for family members in another country to join their relatives here, and helping people obtain the legal documentation they need to work in the United States.

Both Campo and Winn are excited by another element of the legal services program—providing naturalization classes to prepare the immigrants and refugees to eventually become American citizens. The first class, which lasts eight weeks, will start on March 12.

The legal services program has also benefitted from a partnership with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the St. Thomas More Society in the archdiocese, a Catholic organization dedicated to faith and community within the legal profession.

"The USCCB was offering a grant to get parishes organized to welcome refugees," Campo says. "I thought it was a good idea to have the St. Thomas More Society at each of the local law schools get involved in immigration services within Catholic Charities Indianapolis."

The USCCB grants have allowed the legal services program to pay four interns from the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis. And 30 students from the Indiana University School of Law in Bloomington are volunteers in the program.

"A lot of them have a legal mind with a social justice lens for the international community," Campo says. "This is a good outlet for them. If they work for us for a semester or a year, they will have knowledge of the immigrants, their concerns and the services that will let them continue to help in the future."

The program expects to assist about 300 people this year, Winn says. He also noted that there are fees for each of the services, but they are nominal. As an example, helping a person through the process of applying for legal, permanent residency is $100.

"People have been receptive to our services," he says. "Just as Indianapolis is becoming more of a hub for diversity, it's exciting to become part of the process of advocating for immigrants."

Campo shares that feeling.

"Having my grandfather talk about coming through Ellis Island when he was 8, I saw it from that side," she says. "Professionally, I think about all the people who helped him along the way. And now, I'm doing that. On the spiritual side, you feel you are living out the Gospel—'when I was a stranger, you welcomed me' [Mt 25:35]. On the professional side, now we have the services in place."

(For more information about legal services for immigrants and refugees, contact Tim Winn at 317-236-1517 or 800-382-9836, ext. 1517, or by e-mail at twinn@archindy.org.)

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