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'Immigrants in crisis' call legal aid agency for help

Pisgah Legal Services attorney Shoshana Fried speaks during a forum on immigration. Pisgah Legal Services attorney Shoshana Fried speaks during a forum on immigration.

Calls for help from “immigrants in crisis” have skyrocketed amid fear and confusion over Trump administration immigration policies, Pisgah Legal Services officials say.

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The nonprofit agency has seen requests for legal aid spike by 253 percent this year. One was from a young mother whom the agency had helped to secure temporary legal status to continue her job in health care. She supports two young children, who are U.S. citizens, and her elderly parents. She’s afraid that under Trump administration immigration policies she will lose her status and be deported.
The one area where calls have dropped is reporting on domestic violence because undocumented residents are fearful that even reporting a crime could get them deported, the legal aid agency’s director said.
“They’ve just about stopped coming to us for help in domestic violence and other crimes because they’re afraid if they come to us they’ll be deported,” Jim Barrett, executive director of Pisgah Legal Services, told an audience of 70 that came to the lunch and learn program. “People are scared.”
Barrett, Pisgah Legal immigration attorney Shoshana Fried, legal assistant Thalia Hoy and agriculture business leader Bert Lemkes spoke during a panel on immigration last week at Grace Lutheran Church.
The agency is seeing many mothers and fathers who want help setting up a power of attorney letters and arranging custody for their children in case they get deported. The parents don’t want the state to place their children in foster care; instead, they’re making arrangements to place their children with close friends or relatives.
“We’re trying to help them know the difference between trusting law enforcement, who are there to serve and protect, vs. ICE,” Barrett said. “We want them to be helping law enforcement catch the bad guys, if you will.”
The fear is so great now that it’s disrupting family life in many ways.
“We see clients who are not letting their children out of the house,” he said. “They’re not letting them go to school.”
The agency became aware of one child whose mother was late to pick him up from school.
“The kid became hysterical because he thought she might have been deported,” Barrett said.
The immigrants that seek help from Pisgah Legal Services are primarily from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemela, said Fried, the staff attorney.
“In Henderson County particularly a lot of our families have lived in the United States for a long time,” she said. “Many of them have U.S. citizen children, so it’s a different group of immigrants than border towns and other places.”
The legal aid agency has always dealt with clients who face deportation, Fried added. Never before has there been so much confusion about what might lead to deportation. Under the Obama administration, illegal immigrants were deported when they were convicted of a violent crime and in some other cases but not for minor arrests.
“The nice thing about those priorities is that they were very clear,” Fried said. “So when someone came into our office I could say with a fair amount of certainty that you were a priority to be deported or not. The problem with the new priorities is they’re not as clear.”
The new priorities cast a much wider net. They subject undocumented residents who have been charged or convicted of a crime or who have “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense,” has made a willful misrepresentation in official documents, “has abused any program” offering public benefits like Food Stamps or Medicaid or “in the judgment of an immigration officer otherwise poses a risk to public safety or national security.”
“We don’t know if driving without a license is a criminal offense,” she said.
Bert Lemkes, general manager of Tri-Hishtil, a Mills River plant grafting company, said uncertainty threatens farmers’ ability to find labor.
“The only real solution to really take care of the fear of the unknown is to find a long-term permanent solution for our immigration system,” Lemkes said. “Overall, that solution is not at the local level and not at the state level. It’s at the federal level. … What we are concerned about is our current workforce. They are dedicated, they work hard and we need them. You can talk to any serious farmer in the United States and he knows that his labor force is just as important as the equipment he can buy.”
Deporting undocumented workers won’t result in farm jobs for U.S. citizens, Lemkes said.
“Your fruits and vegetables will be picked by foreign hands either inside or outside (the U.S.). Take your pick,” he said.