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Reaching Out to Immigrants in Their Communities

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Reaching Out to Immigrants in Their Communities

"Justice should not depend upon the income level of immigrants," said Judge Robert A. Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in a speech at the City Bar last year. With this concise statement, Judge Katzmann summarized the guiding principle behind the City Bar Justice Center's efforts to provide access to justice for the immigrant community.

Through the Immigrant Women and Children Project and the Refugee Assistance Project, the Center provides pro bono legal services in hundreds of cases in various stages of development. In addition to the casework, the Center recruits and trains volunteer attorneys, prepares clients for interviews, monitors the courts, stays on top of the latest issues, arranges symposia, and advocates for legislation to improve immigration processes.

Recognizing that immigration cases are as diverse as the clients involved and often don't fall into neat categories, the Center's latest initiative is the New York City Immigrant Advocacy Initiative (NYCIAC). The NYCIAC works in collaboration with experienced immigration lawyers to conduct a series of clinics that provide limited general immigration assistance. The first took place in November, with volunteer lawyers taking over the Center's offices and providing pro bono consultations to immigrant clients. For many clients it was their first opportunity to get expert legal advice at the beginning of their process, the time when bad advice sends too many clients off on the wrong path to immigration, and when a dose of preventive lawyering can make all the difference. For young volunteer lawyers, it was an excellent opportunity to test the pro-bono waters without having to commit to a long case.

Because so many immigrants have extensive work and family commitments, it was determined that the best way to provide these services was to reach out to potential clients in their own neighborhoods. Through the auspices of the New York City Council, under the leadership of Speaker Christine C. Quinn and Council members Jessica S. Lappin, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Joseph P. Addabbo, Jr., Erik Martin Dilan, Simcha Felder, Kendall Stewart, and the Brooklyn Delegation, funding was provided to set up outreach naturalization clinics at organizations including the South Queens Boys and Girls Club and The Children's Aid Society.

Plans are in the works to extend the naturalization and general information clinics to other neighborhoods in the city. One or more of the events will focus on "Knowing Your Rights." Others will be tailored to social workers and parents. Leading this effort is the Center's second Fragomen Fellow, Elizabeth T. Reichard, on loan from the firm of Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen and Lowey, LLP. Reichard stresses the importance of involving community-based organizations, "because they know the needs of local immigrants, offer safe spaces for consultations and know how to do outreach to those most in need of services."

"The training around immigration issues conducted by CBJC's Fragoman attorneys has been a godsend to staff and parents," said Cathleen Clements, Director of the Office of Public Policy and Client Advocacy at the Children's Aid Society. "With the array of false information in our neighborhoods that places immigrants in jeopardy, we are so grateful to have knowledgeable and caring professionals provide realistic and informative clinics for our families and social workers."

This article originally appeared in the City Bar's monthly newsletter, 44th Street Notes, in April 2008.