Holistic Legal Services For Immigrants

holistic legal service

By Pat Schmatz

Juana complained to the management about rodents in her apartment. Instead of taking care of the problem, the landlord gave her an eviction notice. Legal Aid represented Juana in housing court. The judge awarded her every dime she had ever paid to live in the rat-infested building.

Abdi suffers from multiple disabilities. At an eligibility determination, without an interpreter present, the public health nurse determined that his personal care assistance (PCA) hours should be cut in half. Neither Abdi nor his family are native English speakers. Legal Aid represented the family in an appeal, and the judge determined that Abdi’s PCA hours should be increased – not cut.

Janessa’s husband, a U.S. citizen, never filed the paperwork for her green card. He used his English proficiency and understanding of the legal system to control Janessa and their children. Legal Aid represented Janessa in family court. She received full legal and physical custody of the children. Legal Aid also helped her to obtain housing, public benefits and health care.

Each of these three families has legal status in the United States. Each stood at a distinct disadvantage in the legal system. The systems and paperwork are challenging enough for those raised and educated here, with English as their first language. People who struggle with language or understanding of the systems are particularly vulnerable.

In addition to unfamiliarity with the systems, a threat of “calling ICE” is enough to silence many immigrants, including those with full legal status. An encounter with police has the potential to interfere with a path to citizenship, and people who are unsure of their rights avoid police and courts out of fear of being deported – even when the threat is entirely unjustified.

Legal Aid Staff Attorney Greger Calhan’s caseload is filled with claims by recent immigrants. He staffs Legal Aid’s East African Community Legal Clinic, which serves East African women and families. Calhan finds that his clients often forgo their rights in order to avoid trouble. Navigating the system of courts and lawsuits to preserve housing or get a deposit back is just too much.

Legal Aid provides comprehensive services to immigrants with low income. Attorneys like Calhan who work in the community are supported by colleagues back in the office. A phone call, an email, or a chat in the hallway provides easy access to current, detailed knowledge of housing and family law, public benefits, tax and elder law, and disability rights.

“I don’t have to be and am not an expert in every area of law,” says Calhan. “I recently had a question about a Section 8 housing lease termination. The landlord said the tenant was responsible for the bedbug infestation in her apartment, and that didn’t sound right to me, so I got on the phone to Georgina Santos in Legal Aid’s housing unit. She was outraged and told me the immediate steps to take.”

Legal Aid has other attorneys who, like Calhan, work in the community. Medical- legal partnerships, collaboration with counselors in Minneapolis public schools, and housing court advice and eviction representation projects all provide easy access points for immigrants.

Immigrants often have several interrelated legal issues. Legal Aid attorneys can turn to the expertise of their 80-plus colleagues to untangle the web of difficulties, and ensure that immigrants have the same access to justice as any other resident of Minnesota.