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Church legal clinic gives immigrants place to turn

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 She's worried about her oldest daughter, now almost 18, who's residing with strangers in Honduras.

She talks to her daughter almost daily, she said, but the last time she saw her in person was when her daughter was 7 years old.

That's because she's undocumented and can't leave the U.S. without running the risk of being shut out of the country.

The woman from Honduras is one of more than three dozen clients who've already sought help from The Bridge Community Church to straighten out their legal status. The Logansport church at the corner of Third Street and Linden Avenue recently opened Indiana's 13th nonprofit immigration clinic licensed through the U.S. Bureau of Immigration Appeals.

Zach Szmara, the church's pastor, also serves as the accredited immigration legal representative for the clinic. After becoming the church's pastor about two years ago, he and others at the church decided to reach out to local Latino residents and change the church's identity into "a church that's multicultural, multilingual," he told the Pharos-Tribune. "Let's not be a white church that has a Spanish service."

The change was rocky. But the church has grown to an average 60 to 80 attendees on a Sunday, up from the 20 or so who showed up for the first service Szmara preached as a guest minister. Both English- and Spanish-speakers were attracted to the church over the last couple of years, Szmara said.

That's when he noticed plenty of people struggling to navigate the hoops of becoming legal residents.

He estimates one in three Logansport residents are from immigrant families, based on data from the Logansport schools. The U.S. Census Bureau's American Communities Survey suggests 73.4 percent of Cass County's 3,226 foreign-born residents are not U.S. citizens.

"What we started hearing was all this need for immigration help," Szmara said. "There's just no one around."

When he and another man started training to become accredited legal immigration representatives — meaning they're allowed to file paperwork or appear in immigration courts on behalf of someone — the nearest accredited legal representatives were in Indianapolis. Attorneys specializing in immigration paperwork were at least that far away, too.

Legal advice for individuals or families seeking to obtain legal residency papers isn't cheap.

"There's tons of stories of people spending hundreds of dollars," Szmara said. The Honduran woman said she'd paid an attorney's office $1,650 to process her paperwork in order to visit her daughter — whom she hasn't seen in more than a decade — or bring her to the U.S. legally. Still, her case got nowhere, and she grew frustrated with paperwork mix-ups and postponements.

After having spent a decade without her own mother as a child, she hates the thought of missing years with her daughter, too.

Another woman from Mexico had similar trouble with a large immigration law office based in Chicago. In her case, she forked over more than $2,000 for processing paperwork based on her son's citizenship and U.S. military service, without effect.

In contrast, a consultation fee with the church's clinic is $40. The clinic charges no more than $100 for even the most complicated cases, Szmara said.

Szmara doesn't fault immigration law offices, though. Sometimes mix-ups happen simply because of the volume of cases an office is handling, he said — another reason he thinks the church's legal clinic is important.

Even the simplest process takes about four to five hours of his or other volunteers' time in sessions with clients to make sure the paperwork is filled out completely and accurately — time law offices rarely spend with their clients. More complicated applications, such as those involving an undocumented immigrant who has married a U.S. citizen, are more time-consuming. "You're talking 20-plus hours, easy," Szmara said.

The majority of the clinic's clients are Latino, and some have been victims of violent crime. Others are legal residents' children whose paperwork has been tied up in red tape for years.

"There's just so many hurdles even when there's a path forward," Szmara said.

Most are from Logansport, but the clinic has also drawn clients from surrounding towns and as far away as Lafayette and Indianapolis, in part because there are so few low-cost legal clinics.

The U.S. Bureau of Immigration Appeals now lists 15 clinics in Indiana, including the church's and two others that opened this year.

Szmara hopes to add to that number through the church's denomination, The Wesleyan Church. As co-director of Immigrant Connection of the Wesleyan Church, he hopes to enlist other churches in the denomination to launch their own immigration clinics. He's also working on adding another accredited immigration legal representative to the Logansport clinic.

"When you see a need, you have to try to do what you can," he said.

___

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Pharos-Tribune: http://www.pharostribune.com

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