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Undocumented and Underserved: Supporting Immigrants in NYC Amid the Pandemic

by Cecilia Lopez Santiesteban, Esq. - Fragomen Fellow August 12, 2020

Earlier this year, before the pandemic, the City Bar Justice Center’s (CBJC) Immigrant Justice Project hosted a legal assistance clinic where participants were screened for immigration relief options. During the legal clinic, *Laura, a woman from El Salvador, was terrified to speak to volunteer attorneys about her immigration case – she feared disclosing personal information would place her at risk for deportation. It was not until Laura spoke to a CBJC representative in her native language, Spanish, and understood that the attorneys were CBJC volunteers and trusted allies that she felt comfortable enough to tell her story. After Laura spoke to the volunteer attorneys, she cried tears of gratitude as she expressed her gratitude and said she felt empowered and prepared to move forward with her case.

As undocumented immigrants grapple with ongoing immigration policy changes and try to cope with the unknown during the pandemic, the Immigrant Justice Project (IJP) strives to alleviate client fears, and reduce confusion, by innovating new ways to provide accurate, trusted free legal assistance. IJP is changing its model to make programming more accessible as legal service providers shift to providing remote assistance. Understanding how invaluable attorney-client meetings have been in the past, IJP promptly shifted from in-person services to serving clients remotely and hosted a series of virtual events this summer.

In June, IJP hosted its first ever virtual event, a live Facebook town hall. I am fortunate to serve as the Fragomen Fellow for IJP, and as part of my fellowship, I had the opportunity to organize this community event and led the discussion in Spanish answering frequently asked questions regarding the pandemic. Topics covered included information on the new public charge rule, medical care, unemployment benefits, financial assistance, and other resources available to the NYC undocumented community during the COVID-19 crisis. Over 200 people viewed the event, and at the end of the town hall, participants had the opportunity to provide feedback and joined a Q&A.

Most recently, our IJP team organized two virtual legal clinics to screen participants for immigration relief in partnership with CBJC pro bono partners from Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, LLP, S& P Global, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, New York Chapter. The clinics were coordinated with community-based organizations, Mixteca Organization, Inc. and Mexican Coalition. The events were held through Zoom – volunteer attorneys and registered attendees had the opportunity to meet 1-on-1 in a private “breakout room.” During the legal clinics, attorneys assisted attendees with identifying eligibility for forms of relief, informing them of legal and non-legal resources, informing them about their rights, and when applicable, providing referrals for attendees to secure representation. Through both remote events, about 30 volunteers were able to assist over 40 individuals.

Clients like Laura, rely on CBJC’s ability to leverage the skills and knowledge of our generous volunteer attorneys to provide high-quality legal assistance. Today, our clients also rely on our ability to make services accessible so that they can get the help they need during this COVID-19 pandemic. IJP has been able to fulfill both demands as the world moves remotely. Our team fully intends to continue to rise to the occasion as we learn to incorporate new technology and online tools to existing legal services and programming.

*Disclaimer: Please note pseudonyms are used to protect the identity of CBJC program recipients and to preserve client confidentiality.

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