Clinton, 18, came to the United States from Belize when he was a year old. Since then, the Staten Island resident said he has been taking his life “day by day,” anxious about his immigration status.
Yesterday he arrived at St. Mary’s Church on the Lower East Side seeking legal advice on how to become part of a federal program announced by the Obama administration in June that allows qualified immigrants to apply for work permits for up to two years without fear of deportation. The temporary relief, called “deferred action” can be renewed.
Anastasia Tonello, left, of the Laura Devine firm, and Jennifer Durkin, below, of Durkin & Puri, talk to potential applicants for the deferred action program yesterday at St. Mary’s Church in Manhattan.
NYLJ Photos/Monika Kozak
Dozens of lawyers, including Anastasia Tonello of the immigration-focused Laura Devine firm, cleared their calendars to be available to screen applicants and to steer those qualified to organizations that can aid them in completing their applications on the first day they were being accepted.
“It’s nice that they care about the kids who had no choice [to come to the U.S.] and have been here their whole life,” Clinton said, adding that Tonello advised him what records to retrieve for his follow-up appointment with a legal services group. He said he wants to stay in this country. “I don’t know much else.”
The government lists seven criteria for eligibility, which the attorneys must consider in advising the youth: an immigrant must be under 31 as of June 15, 2012; must have arrived in the United States before reaching a 16th birthday; have continuously resided here since June 15, 2007; have been in the United States on June 15, 2012 and at the time of requesting deferred action; have entered without inspection before June 15 or had a lawful immigration status expired as of June 15; be in school, have graduated or received a certificate of completion from high school or be an honorably discharged veteran; and have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, three or more other misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.
Since the June announcement, New York legal services groups and volunteer lawyers have been gearing up to work with applicants. Jennifer Durkin, a partner at Durkin & Puri and co-chair of the pro bono committee of the New York Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said she has heard from a number of lawyers in private and public interest firms who are asking, “how can we help?”
“It’s been amazing,” she said about the legal community’s response. Immigration groups and lawyers have been holding regular teleconferences on the deferred action program since it was first announced, she said.
The New York Immigration Coalition said a task force has formed to host future legal clinics and informational sessions.
The Legal Aid Society, for example, will begin holding clinics three days a week starting next week, said Jojo Annobil, attorney-in-charge of the immigration law unit at the organization. Legal Aid will plan future clinics as it sees the need, he said.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” said Annobil, adding Legal Aid lawyers will help about 80 applicants they screened at yesterday’s clinic in completing their applications.
Meanwhile, about 145 volunteer attorneys have so far signed up for clinics organized by the New York City Bar’s Justice Center. “The response from attorneys has been tremendous,” said Barbara Camacho, a fellow of the Justice Center’s Immigration Outreach Project supported by Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy.
The city bar clinics are scheduled for Sept. 10, Oct. 2 and Nov. 1. A training session for volunteer lawyers, who will help applicants fill out the deferred action applications, is planned for Sept. 4.
About 40 of the Fragomen firm’s lawyers have signed up for the fall clinics, including partners, associates and counsel, said partner Lisa Koenig. Fragomen also has its own internal training session for its lawyers in September, she said.
“You really have the opportunity to turn somebody’s life around,” said Koenig. “I think this is going to be [a] really popular [pro bono program] because there’s so much pent-up support for it, and it involves kids.”
“It’s really important to offer people pro bono services to make sure people don’t mistakenly fall prey to others who take advantage of them,” she said.
Koenig said training is crucial because of the repercussions of advising an undocumented immigrant incorrectly. For instance, if a lawyer advised an immigrant with a criminal record to apply for benefits for which she was not eligible, the person would suddenly be on the government’s radar. “You can unwittingly put someone in a worse situation,” she said.
Yesterday’s clinic at St. Mary’s was organized by the New York Immigration Coalition, New York State Immigrant Action Fund and the New York State Youth Leadership Council. Among the co-sponsors were the Legal Aid Society and the New York Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Thanu Yakupitiyage, a spokeswoman for the Immigration Coalition, said more than 1,000 potential applicants came seeking legal advice. Most of that counseling was provided by about 15 private bar attorneys from the Immigration Lawyers group and several other public interest lawyers.
Tonello said her practice primarily involves business immigration issues, such as advising employers on transferring workers. “Basically my firm isn’t dealing with these deferred action cases,” she said, but “I have the knowledge. I can contribute.”
An emotional part of the clinic was interacting with the parents, she said. “You had a lot of parents come in with their kids who are in high school and what a tremendous relief this must be for them,” said Tonello, who spoke to about 20 potential applicants.
Durkin, who also volunteered yesterday, said the “vast majority” of the immigrants she spoke with entered the U.S. before age five. Most of them qualified for the program, she said, and many brought the necessary documents such as school identifications, transcripts, immunization and medical records. “They’re very ready for this,” she said.
New York City officials estimate that as many as 50,000 to 60,000 residents may be eligible to receive deferred action authorization to work legally in the U.S.
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