POLITICS

L.A. immigration clinic has become training site for similar services nationwide

RIO GRANDE CITY, TX - DECEMBER 08:  Central American immigrants wait to be transported after turning themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents on December 8, 2015 near Rio Grande City, Texas. They had just illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into Texas to seek asylum. The number of migrant families and unaccompanied minors has again surged in recent months, even as the total number of illegal crossings nationwide has gone down over the previous year.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

RIO GRANDE CITY, TX - DECEMBER 08: Central American immigrants wait to be transported after turning themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents on December 8, 2015 near Rio Grande City, Texas. They had just illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into Texas to seek asylum. The number of migrant families and unaccompanied minors has again surged in recent months, even as the total number of illegal crossings nationwide has gone down over the previous year. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)  (2015 Getty Images)

South-central Los Angeles has little in common with Logansport.

"For a lot of people, I think they hear south-central and they think, 'Oh no, you gotta duck down,'" Elena Ramirez said.

Police helicopters show up regularly over the densely populated 51 square miles, she said. Hundreds of thousands live in the region, mostly low income. More than half are Latino and nearly 40 percent are black.

But what the neighborhoods do have in common is what brought Ramirez to Logansport this week: A need for immigration legal services.

She and six other people from around the nation are in training this week at The Bridge Community Church's immigration legal clinic, The Bridge Immigrant Connection, preparing to start similar legal clinics in their own cities.

The small Wesleyan church along the Eel River at the intersection of Linden Avenue and Sixth Street opened a low-cost immigration services clinic in summer 2014 and has since handled more than 600 cases for clients seeking documented status or working toward naturalization as a U.S. citizen.

It's now one of 15 similar clinics in Indiana and was the first of the Wesleyan denomination's network of similar clinics. It has served as a training ground for 60 or more people seeking licensure through the federal government as accredited immigration legal representatives.

With 10 clinics in the Wesleyan network, it's become the largest such network in the nation, according to the church's pastor and accredited legal representative, Zach Szmara. Another dozen clinics are finishing the approval process and are expected to open in the next three months or so.

On Wednesday, the trainees huddled around computers, stacks of immigration forms and reference books as thick as your fist. They're required to accumulate about 40 hours of real-world clinic experience to achieve their accreditation as an immigration legal representatives.

"There's no offices around, so they're all here," Szmara said.

Ramirez has already helped her parents and in-laws navigate the complicated world of immigration and naturalization paperwork, a process that helped convince her she wanted to assist others the same way.

Wednesday afternoon, she worked alongside Abby Miller of Salem, Massachusetts, a low-income suburb of Boston where more than half of the residents are immigrants. They were handling cases of clients who'd visited the Logansport clinic, sometimes troubleshooting immigration appeals that had been rejected for things as simple as a missing signature.

"We're actually getting real cases," Miller said. "That's extremely helpful."

While most trainees are part of the Wesleyan denomination, about a third are not. Miller's church isn't Wesleyan — it's part of the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination, she said. She learned about the training through the denomination's connection to the Immigration Alliance, a network of several Christian denominations pooling resources to assist immigrants.

"We're looking to start the first site for that denomination," Miller said. The church is working with the North Shore Community Development Coalition, an organization focused on serving low-income and distressed neighborhoods, to open a clinic late this summer in offices the North Shore CDC is providing.

One of this week's trainers, Katie White, was herself the first trainee at The Bridge in Logansport. She helped open another church-based clinic in 2015 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which has since handled cases for more than 200 clients in over 40 countries.

"There's such a high demand" for low-cost legal help navigating the immigration and naturalization processes, she said. The Pew Research Center indicates Michigan receives the fifth largest number of refugees out of all U.S. states in 2015. Two other nonprofits run immigration legal clinics in the city, White said, but their waiting lists are months long.

White and Jim Wood of Olathe, Kansas, came to Logansport to help Szmara so trainees would learn a variety of different ways people run such clinics.

Szmara anticipates increased demand over the next few months, saying a pending U.S. Supreme Court case could spur thousands of Logansport residents to seek immigration appeals or naturalized citizenship.

The court is expected to hear arguments this spring in a case surrounding President Barack Obama's executive actions expanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents initiatives. Those initiatives let noncitizens with family and community ties to the U.S. get temporary, renewable deferrals of deportation, according to the American Immigration Council.

Szmara will be ready, he hopes. The church hired an assistant in February for the immigration clinic and is preparing to open a branch clinic in Noblesville in a few months to serve clients who are already driving up from that area.

He expects to remain a training ground for directors of other clinics, too.

"I want to help as many people as I can," he said.

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