In a unique interfaith initiative, Combined Jewish Philanthropies is currently raising funds to benefit Catholic Charities’ Immigration Legal Services. Deborah Kincade Rambo, president of Catholic Charities of Boston, spoke to JewishBoston about CJP’s campaign and her organization’s mandate to work on behalf of immigrants.
We are embarking on the Passover and Easter season. At Passover, Jews make it a point to honor the stranger. In light of that sentiment, can you tell us about this unique interfaith collaboration between CJP and Catholic Charities?
This is an amazing collaboration. What a generous gift from CJP to do this fundraising on our behalf. Honoring the stranger is part of the Passover tradition, and welcoming the stranger is part of the Catholic faith tradition. These traditions are so closely aligned that it makes this collaboration that much more meaningful for all of us.
What have been some of the responses in your community to this interfaith endeavor?
People have been really touched by the generosity of the Jewish faith community in taking on this effort. CJP President Barry Shrage very wisely looked at the work of Jewish community agencies and noted that there were particular services they didn’t provide, but that we did. Just as Jewish Vocational Service, Jewish Family & Children’s Service and other Jewish organizations serve people of all faiths, we at Catholic Charities do the same. We like to say we don’t do this work for our clients because they are Catholic; we do it because we are Catholic.
Within minutes of the Immigration Legal Services phone lines opening at 9 a.m. on Monday morning, the office receives a week’s worth of requests for legal help. How will more funding expand your services?
Our hope is that the dollars that are raised will allow us to double our capacity and enable us to hire enough attorneys to meet more of the need. Consultation appointments are filled in just a few minutes. What we also know is there are people leaving messages too. In the first couple of weeks after changes happened in the immigration process, we got hundreds of calls. We know there’s a big demand in the community for people to get consultation services, and we know people do much better when they have an attorney representing them. But we also understand that legal consultation can be very expensive.
Are people still cautious or afraid about their immigration status?
Yes, definitely. We’re seeing it in our church parishes, we’re seeing it in our schools and we’re hearing it from the clients who call us. Children are still afraid they might come home and not find a parent there. When you see some of the news coverage from different parts of the country where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests have happened, it’s hard for a child who thinks that could be their parents. Our experience has been that even people who have green cards and have lived in this country legally for years are still very nervous. We do our best to reassure these people.
Your immigration office has a staff of seven, some full-time and some part-time. Do you expect to add new hires?
We expect to hire one or two more attorneys for some combination of taking on casework and conducting Know Your Rights seminars. One of the things we’ve been offering in the broader community is sessions for educators, priests, ministers and community members so they understand what the legal rights in the United States are if an ICE agent shows up at someone’s door or school, or if an agent approaches someone on a sidewalk. We’re not the only agency in the community conducting these seminars, but we are doing many of them.
What happens after a call is answered in your office? Are people assigned a lawyer?
A client will come in and meet with one of our immigration attorneys, who will review the person’s immigration history and documentation, and help determine if there’s an opportunity to earn lawful status. If there is, we take the case, represent it and manage it until the client receives the legal benefit for which he or she is eligible. Many times, it takes four, five or even more years to come to fruition. We find that about 70 percent of the time, people who come to us have a legal pathway. Not everyone who comes in understands what his or her legal pathway is. That’s one of the reasons the immigration attorneys are so important in this process. Immigration law is very complicated and technical. If you don’t have a good grasp of it, it’s hard to give good advice about what someone can and can’t do—and the wrong advice can have extreme consequences.
Are there some cases you don’t have the resources to take on at the moment?
We can only provide eight to 10 new consultations per week this year. Consultations are the gateway to full representation for people who have a chance under the law to regularize their status in the U.S. We aren’t able to represent people facing immediate deportation at this time, as there isn’t enough time for us to fully evaluate a person’s options and provide the best representation. We very carefully assess asylum cases, and we do take some. There are other organizations in the city—PAIR Project is one of them—that specialize in asylum work. We work in partnership with PAIR, but they take most of the asylum cases. In the end, our work is roughly 50 percent humanitarian and 50 percent assisting people in reuniting with family members.
What sorts of humanitarian cases have you taken on?
Our humanitarian casework helps victims become survivors and rebuild their lives in the U.S. by giving them legal status and a pathway to full citizenship. We consider representing children who are abused, neglected or abandoned as part of our humanitarian legal work. In addition, we help people who are victims of crime, domestic violence or human trafficking. We help refugees reunite with their loved ones. We also assist asylum seekers.
How many people has your office helped to gain legal residency or citizenship?
We’ve run this legal service for almost four decades. Over that time we have probably assisted a caseload in the tens of thousands.
Is family reunification a big part of the queries you receive?
It is. The whole legal immigration system is designed around family reunification. We help people with lawful status or citizenship to bring family members to the U.S. It’s an extremely lengthy process, and some families wait 10 years or more to be together.
What exactly does a path to citizenship entail?
We help lawful residents assess if they qualify for U.S. citizenship. There are a variety of requirements that people have to meet. They have to know how to speak, read and write English. They have to be of good moral character, and they have to pass a civics exam. They also have to pay a fee to apply for citizenship, which is just over $700.
Are there any parting thoughts you want to share?
This is an extraordinary gift that Barry Shrage and CJP are offering. On behalf of all the people that we will now have an opportunity to serve, we are most grateful.
CJP is proud to partner with Catholic Charities to help more immigrants find the dignity and safety they seek. The CJP Legal Aid Fund for Immigrants will increase the number of clients who can access the legal services Catholic Charities provides. Read more here.