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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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  1. I grew up on a farm and live in the county and it's interesting that the big industrial farmers like Jeff Shoaf don't live next to their industrial operations...

  2. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  3. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  4. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  5. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

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