Immigrant Legal Services trains reps for PT

Kirk Boxleitner kboxleitner@ptleader.com
Posted 8/1/17

What began as a health district program for immigrants in Kitsap County 13 years ago is currently training three people to serve as legal representatives for immigrants in Port Townsend.

The July …

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Immigrant Legal Services trains reps for PT

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What began as a health district program for immigrants in Kitsap County 13 years ago is currently training three people to serve as legal representatives for immigrants in Port Townsend.

The July 28 Jefferson County Coordinated Community Response meeting hosted Ray Garrido, legal services director of the Kitsap Immigrant Assistance Center’s Immigration Legal Services.

Garrido recalled how 2004 saw both the start of the program and the loss of its funding, which led to volunteers conducting it as a mobile program, meeting in open church rooms and sites such as the Bremerton YWCA.

Garrido was an (ESL) tutor in English as a second language when he first encountered the group in 2009, and he soon became a troubleshooter who responded to a broad variety of immigrants’ needs, from how to pay bills and read letters to navigating landlord/tenant disputes.

When Garrido heard that people could be accredited by the Bureau of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to serve as legal representatives for immigrants, he and his fellow volunteers saw it as an opportunity to address a shortfall for immigrants on this side of Puget Sound.

“If you were applying for a green card, or if a friend or relative was facing removal, there was maybe one attorney on Bainbridge Island who did that sort of work,” Garrido said. “Otherwise, you had to go to a Seattle lawyer and pay their big fees. And the Northwest Immigrants Right Project is already maxed out.”

Garrido explained that the BIA recognizes organizations that apply and then accredits the people working for them, but because he estimated that 90 percent of the people working for his organization were volunteers, their initial application was rejected in February 2014.

“They weren’t used to a bunch with a smaller budget, like ours, so they didn’t think we’d be viable,” said Garrido, who was nonetheless able to secure an approval in November 2014, after working with colleagues. “About 80 percent of the time, we’re doing this work for free.”

Garrido was the first one of the group to be accredited, but Dove House Advocacy Services has already agreed to provide a meeting space for immigrants to confer with the three legal representatives in Port Townsend, whom he expects to be accredited this fall.

“We started out in Kitsap, “and now we’re providing representation to folks from Forks to Shelton who can’t afford attorneys of their own,” Garrido said.

According to Garrido, not only do far too many immigrants not have adequate legal representation, but many of them don’t even have translators during legal proceedings.

With such situations coupled with the current administration’s stance on immigration issues, Garrido warned that undocumented immigrants can see their removals from America expedited, regardless of whether they understand the questions being asked of them.

“We have unaccompanied minors who are expected to represent themselves in the courtroom,” Garrido said. “I am so disappointed in my country right now.”

Garrido elaborated that many immigrants are entrepreneurs, but their lack of business experience in America leaves them vulnerable to economic predation, which is why the Immigration Assistance Center also focuses on improving immigrants’ financial literacy.

To avoid competing amongst themselves, Garrido reported that groups of immigrants have consulted with the Immigration Assistance Center about forming cooperative labor unions.

Libby Palmer of the Jefferson County Immigrant Rights Advocates in Port Townsend has worked with Garrido on this point, and she cited a number of female house cleaners who are exploring this model.

Another front on which Garrido sees immigrants as vulnerable to exploitation is the law itself, with unscrupulous attorneys who overcharge them for services and then refuse to return their phone calls, and the standard of judging immigrants based on whether they demonstrate “good moral character.”

“When they’re in their teens, immigrants can fall prey to gangs, which would be counted against them,” Garrido said. “At places like the detention center in Dilley, Texas, kids have to appear at deportation hearings by themselves. I’ve heard judges say they can train 3-year-olds to represent themselves in this process. That’s the mentality that exists.”

Garrido reiterated his concerns about how immigrants could be treated under the Trump administration, when compared to past presidents.

“Obama deported more immigrants than any other president before him, but there was still a ceiling,” Garrido said.

Garrido praised the legislation introduced by U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, which, if passed, would give a number of young immigrants the chance to earn permanent residency in America and a pathway toward citizenship.

“But I’m afraid our current attorney general is going to fight it tooth and nail,” Garrido said, referring to Jeff Sessions. “We have these prisons run by private companies, and they run on a quota system, to keep their beds full.”

Garrido echoed a warning previously issued by Jefferson County Sheriff Dave Stanko and Port Townsend Police Chief Mike Evans, who asserted that local law enforcement cannot and should not be responsible for enforcing immigration status.

“If immigrants become afraid to talk to law enforcement, then things become incredibly dangerous, not just for them, but for all of us,” Garrido said.

For more information on the Immigrant Assistance Center, call 360-616-0479 for English or 360-616-2722 for Spanish; email info@kitsapiac.org or visit kitsapiac.org.

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