Immigrants’ and Language Rights Center bridges language, cultural gaps to help clients

Susie Monroe fled from an abusive relationship with only a suitcase, an Xbox and her cat, Lynxx.

The Australia native had followed her heart and moved to Arizona but discovered too late the man she loved was not who he seemed to be. Although an offer to housesit for a friend in Evansville gave her a safe place to escape to, she arrived in Indiana with no money, no job and an expired visa.

Monroe had originally planned to get her green card while still living in the Grand Canyon State and then leave her husband. She worked in secret so she would not incur more of his ire but, she said, her attorney bungled the application and she had to change her plans.

“I think in a situation like that, you’re in survival mode,” Monroe said, noting she was jobless, disconnected from family and very isolated. “I look back on it now and I don’t know how I got through it.”

Her main motivation came from Lynxx. Fearful that if she got deported, he would have to be left behind, she picked up the phone and again started cold calling immigration attorneys. Eventually, she was directed to Indiana Legal Services, where her case was turned over to The Immigrants’ and Language Rights Center.

Comprised of a team of attorneys and paralegals, the division in the legal aid agency provides help to immigrants who are either primarily seeking asylum or have been victims of a crime. The ILRC provides all services, giving advice and explaining the process in the clients’ native languages, and is attentive to the cultural differences as well as the traumatic experiences the clients bring.

Kristin Garn, director of the center, said the attorneys must be perceptive and identify when the client is not understanding what is happening. Also, the lawyers need to realize that filing for legal status and appearing in immigration court can be a frustrating and scary process for the clients, who are coming from countries where the legal systems can be vastly different.

“Perhaps these are skills of all poverty lawyers where you just have to make sure that you try and try again to explain matters to clients and to be extremely patient and answer any questions they have,” Garn said. “We’re trying to improve access to justice and to empower clients, so we have to keep that mission in mind as we work through the challenges with our clients.”

For Monroe, the ILRC gave her the help she needed. The attorneys guided her through the process of getting her green card, kept her apprised of developments, provided comfort and even offered to give her a ride to Indianapolis to attend her immigration hearing. Although Monroe eventually got her green card, she said she never lost her fear that something would go wrong. Now, she continues to be grateful for the help she received, saying she cannot imagine what she would have faced without ILRC.

“I don’t know what would have happened to me,” Monroe said.

Rewarding work

The center gets about 35 applications a week from individuals asking for help, according to Morgan Robledo Cruz, a paralegal at ILRC. Such is the workload that the attorneys and paralegals can take two to three weeks to review the paperwork, make a decision about whether to take the person on as a client and then, for the people not offered legal representation, provide at least a letter offering some information and references to additional resources.

The Immigrants’ and Language Rights Center at Indiana Legal Services provides help to clients seeking legal status in the U.S., like Susie Monroe (above). The help is offered in clients’ native languages, with attention to cultural differences. (Photo courtesy of Susie Monroe)

“I never realized how underserved and how underrepresented they were and how hard it was for them to get representation,” Robledo Cruz said of the immigrant community coming to the ILRC.

Once an immigrant becomes a client, establishing the attorney-client relationship requires bridging the language and culture gaps. In addition, Robledo Cruz said, many of the people seeking legal help have endured horrific situations, coming from countries torn apart by drugs and gangs where they constantly lived in fear of being killed or pulled into an alley and raped.

Attorney Carolyn Caro Rodriguez recounted her work with one boy from Central America who had been so traumatized that the process to fill out his application for special immigration status took six months. Before the first meeting, she connected with his therapist and pulled the reports from the Department of Child Services. When she did sit down with him, she made sure he was comfortable and she talked “like a real person and not an attorney.”

Still, the work progressed slowly. Having him tell his story again and again would cause him to relive his fear, usually ending with him in tears.

But the effort paid off. Last year, the now young man got his application approved and is hopeful to be able to apply for a green card this year.

“It’s definitely very rewarding,” Caro Rodriguez said. “I met him when he was 14 and now he’s an adult, ready to fulfill his dreams, go to college. It feels great to be able to help a minor now becoming an adult and having him pursue his dreams.”

Making calls

The process of working through the immigration courts and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can take years. ILRC clients like Monroe can never get over their fear of deportation and separation from their families while they are waiting.

Not surprisingly, Robledo Cruz said she cherishes the times she gets to tell them their applications were approved.

She begins by calling clients and asking them if they want some news. Often the clients respond by preparing for the worst possible outcome, but when they learn they have been approved for a visa or asylum, the emotion overtakes them and they either scream with happiness or start crying.

“The majority of our clients are just so grateful just for the opportunity they have, not just for finding a pro bono attorney who cares, but also for finding a situation where they could safely care for their kids and safely care for themselves and just have a better chance at a better future,” Robledo Cruz said.

These days, Monroe is settled in Evansville and working nights at a domestic violence shelter, providing understanding and encouragement to those who are fleeing abuse like she once did. Lynxx has since passed away, but she has adopted two homeless cats and is having fun getting to know them.

Also, on Jan. 13, she traveled to Indianapolis and participated in the ceremony to become a naturalized citizen of the United States.

“I’m really lucky,” Monroe said. “I’m lucky to be here.” •

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