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Advisory council helps Immigrant Law Center stay in tune with clients

The Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota (ILC) is eyeing a name change. The nonprofit’s name might sound too official, its logo look too official, giving immigrants the impression it’s a government agency. For some, that can be a trust buster.

Executive Director John Keller made the observation during a lunch break. I had offered to help for a day, an experiment to learn — and report — about a nonprofit agency by volunteering.

I asked Keller about the lessons learned from working with diverse cultures. The center serves people from some 80 countries. What could other nonprofits draw from its experience?

The agency has a client advisory council, he said. He recalled how the ILC was struggling to set up a meeting with one of the African immigrant communities. An advisory board member pointed to the name and logo and suggested people viewed ILC as part of government. That came as a surprise to staff, given the agency’s history of helping immigrants, Keller said.

“The blindness we had is because we had been so well known with the Spanish-speaking community,” he said. “As our clients grew in diversity and the places they came from, they have less reason to know us and trust us.”

A name-and-logo change isn’t a sure thing, but it is on the table as the agency updates its strategic plan this year.

Agency crash course
My volunteer job this day was answering phones. Jeff Naragon, the center’s AmeriCorps/VISTA worker, gave me the crash course on agency services and phone etiquette.

ILC’s 11-member staff provides some services statewide (such as helping immigrant crime victims). Some services it provides in a 33-county area (such as family reunification; other agencies serve the remaining counties). ILC also works on deportation cases in a rotation with Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights and Centro Legal.

Services have income-eligibility guidelines (187.5 percent of poverty) and a small fee, though no one is refused service for lack of money.

My phone duties were straightforward: When people call, ask if their issue is immigration-related and if they live in the service area. If yes, they can call back Friday between 9 a.m. and noon for attorney screening.

“We try to help as many as we can,” Naragon explains. “If the line is busy, tell them to keep calling.”

A waiting list capped at about 30

(Keller tells me later that ILC used to do intake monthly. It went weekly earlier this year in response to increasing arrests and detentions. ILC caps the waiting list at around 30. Without the cap, it jumps to 200, which isn’t manageable.)

I get a referral list of collaborating agencies, a list of private immigration attorneys and a chair next to office manager Kathy Salinas. (She took the calls from Spanish speakers.)

The day was busy, but in the main involved an uneventful 40 to 50 calls. One client wanted to fax information she had received from Homeland Security. Someone had a child in a foreign country and her child’s passport had expired (couldn’t help there). Most calls came from existing clients or officials wanting to talk to ILC staff.

Then there was the “I need a miracle” call. A woman was trying to help a friend who was days away from deportation. The friend had lived in this country for years and been a good citizen, the woman said.

Inconsistency worked against immigrant

I got a few details. To protect confidentiality, the bare sketch is this: The caller said her friend’s story apparently had an inconsistency. It had surfaced in a government review and now was costing her friend the right to stay here.

The ILC could not help her on short notice. I gave the caller names from the referral sheet; most she had already tried. There did not appear to be a miracle this day.

Keller said it’s the sort of call ILC gets. And it illustrates some of the challenges its staff faces in helping clients, particularly those from countries with repressive governments. Here, attorneys tell clients, they can’t tell the story that worked for their cousin; they need to be personal and tell their own story.

Such candor can be a radical culture shift, Keller said. For some immigrants, telling government officials the perceived safer version of a story “was a survival trait.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Dan Hoxworth on 05/06/2008 - 04:00 pm.

    The Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota is one of the truly premier service providing nonprofits. While working to help people caught in our complex, unworkable immigration maze, they have taken a leadership role in working toward comprehensive immigration reform. John Keller, the Executive Director, is one of the most respected authorities on our immigration and a strong advocate. Unfortunately, far too few Minnesotans know of the work of the Immigrant Law Center and understand that for immigrants and refugees legal assistance is a basic human need especially given the complexity of our system. Hence, the wait list and its need to be curtailed at 30.

    While many assert that “immigrants should wait in line,” today in United States there is no line to wait in as only 1,500 low wage visas are eligible annually and the demand for such workers is in the millions. It is our nation and us as citizens through our democratic government that has failed to create a lawful way for immigrants to contribute to our society now. Fortunately, the Immigrant Law Center is a leading voice to create an orderly, effective and comprehensive process that works for our economy, our American citizens who seek reunification with their families, and immigrants and refugees seeking a better way of life.

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