CEDAR RAPIDS — Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque is expanding its immigration legal services as the need for those resources continues to increase.
Catholic Charities is the social service arm of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, which stretches from the northeast part of the state and encompasses Cedar Rapids, Ames and Mason City.
Before 2015, the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque had accredited representatives performing immigration legal services — helping immigrants and refugees apply for green cards, and helping navigate the naturalization process of becoming a U.S. citizen.
But in 2015, the need for legal services increased so much so that the local Catholic Charities hired two attorneys.
But the need continues to expand, leaving the two attorneys at Catholic Charities with 350 cases currently. The organization is hoping to recruit two more immigration lawyers and a legal assistant. It’s looking to grants and donations to be able to afford it.
“We have such a huge backlog of folks that need services that we have had to suspend taking on new cases,” said one of the current attorneys, Yer Vang, gesturing to the stacks of files surrounding her desk. “We also recognize many immigrants we help are low income, and we don’t want financial hardship to be a barrier, so we have a zero-fee consultation fee. Stats show that immigrants who have an attorney are more successful in their cases. The need for low-bono, pro-bono immigration legal services is so high.”
Catholic Charities provides family-based immigration services, such as family reunification petitions, asylum and green card applications.
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It also has assisted many Eastern Iowa residents in filing to renew their status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as uncertainty surrounds the federal immigration policy.
The DACA policy allows some individuals who were brought to the country illegally as minors to have a renewable, two-year period during which they might not be deported and could be eligible for a work permit.
In September 2017, the Trump administration began plans to phase out DACA, allowing Congress six months to act. That hasn’t happened, but the courts have intervened for now.
Ariel Isaac Barrios, 19, of Cedar Rapids, used Catholic Charities to file his DACA status renewal. His parents came to the United States from Mexico when he was only a few months old.
His parents also used Catholic Charities services — among other legal aid — to fight their yearslong deportation cases. Though his mother now has her green card, his father was deported to Mexico in February 2017.
Because of the uncertainty over DACA policy, Barrios is not able to leave the country to visit his father in Mexico.
Barrios said his family is hesitant to share their legal status because they feel there is a stigma.
“I was not even a year old when my parents brought me. I really couldn’t be like, ‘hey turn around.’ People still look at me like I’m this immigrant. I don’t like to surround myself with those kind of people,” Barrios said. “I was brought up here — it’s all I know. To send me back to a place I don’t even know ... this is my home to me. It’s just a bad feeling to have your home reject you, you know?”
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For now, Barrios said he is working full-time at La Cantina, a Mexican restaurant, to save up to pay for tuition at a university in Connecticut. Barrios said like those who don’t support DACA policies, he does not believe DACA is a perfect answer for those who were brought to the country as minors — but it’s better than nothing.
“I understand their anger but I feel like it’s pointed in the wrong direction,” he said. “People like us, we work for everything we have. No matter what we do, we’re never going to please those people that will never be for immigrants. My parents have always paid taxes. They’ve never had the title of citizens. That’s all we want, all we fight for.”
His family used Catholic Charities services during each of their cases, but the timelines all run together and the processes are still daunting, Barrios said.
Vang knows that, which she said underscores the call from Eastern Iowans to expand legal services. Many of the organization’s clients have pending deportation cases for which they have to travel to Omaha for court hearings.
“It’s literally a day to travel down there for a 10-minute hearing,” she said. “Having access to qualified legal representatives is crucial for immigrants to be able to exercise their rights and find some kind of legal relief.”