In the last year, the changing political climate has ignited growing alarm among immigrants across the nation. Hateful rhetoric and the promotion of extremely harsh immigration policies have all led to an increased demand for free immigration legal services and up-to-date information. The staff at Riis Settlement’s Immigrant Services program has witnessed first-hand this increase in both fear and demand.
Since 2009, Riis’ immigration legal services team has provided free consultations to over 1,000 community members and filed applications with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on behalf of 75% of those participants for benefits such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), naturalization, family petitions, temporary protected status, lawful permanent residency, etc. While we have always maintained a lengthy wait list for services, never has the demand for services been as high as it presently is. Since November, our immigration attorney, Paula Forero, and paralegal, Sophie Simon, have been inundated with a rising number of requests for consultations. Lacking the capacity to meet the need yet not wanting to turn people away, the team, along with Director of Immigrant Services Driftnery Martinez, began to think of ways they could reach a higher number of people in a shorter amount of time. They devised a project plan that centered on conducting an extensive series of Know Your Rights workshops and legal clinics throughout the community, in addition to a number of other key activities. In January, Ms. Forero, held the first Know Your Rights workshop at the Ecuadorian consulate in Long Island City. The two-hour workshop was held in the wake of increased enforcement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. Turnout was high and participants learned about immigrant legal rights, emergency preparation, sources of help, and how to respond to questioning by ICE officers. It was an informative session and proved to be a truly effective way to get the right information to as a wide an audience as possible. Fortunately, the project was recently awarded a $20,000 Program Grant from the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA). This infusion of much-needed funds will greatly increase the capacity of our legal team to continue implementing these activities and to take on a much higher number of cases.
In other good news, Riis Settlement was also selected to take part in the Action NYC Immigration Legal Services Capacity-Building Fellowship program, which is offered through the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and aims to support smaller organizations across the city to grow their immigration legal services programs. Through this program our paralegal, Sophie Simon, will receive intensive legal training and assistance applying for recognition and accreditation with the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Access Programs (OLAP).
Lastly, in an effort to combine resources to maximize effectiveness, Riis Settlement has joined the Western Queens Immigrant Coalition, a group of non-profits that mobilize efforts to reduce fears and anxiety about immigration policy amongst immigrants. Partnering agencies include Sunnyside Community Services, Make the Road NY, Woodside on the Move, Catholic Migration Services and the Arab American Family Support Center.
The Riis Settlement Immigrant Services program has a long history of successfully helping immigrants in western Queens gain the tools and resources they need to forge a path to social and economic self-sufficiency. Throughout the years, staff has responded to the needs of participants with innovative thinking and a deep commitment. We are pleased that in these trying times Riis Settlement can continue to meet the needs of its immigrant participants.