When the International Rescue Committee’s Charlottesville office opened in 1998, their first two years helping refugees settle in America involved mainly Yugoslavians. Their clientele has since diversified, changing along with the world’s troubled spots, to include refugees from Africa such as the Somali Bantus. That same year the Virginia Justice Center split from the auspices of state and federal government funding in order to provide unrestricted services for immigrants and low-wage workers. Representatives from both faces of immigration offered their insights at the Law School Dec. 6 at the invitation of the Virginia Employment and Labor Law Association, National Lawyers Guild, and the Legal Assistance Society.
The Virginia Justice Center for Farm and Immigrant Workers tries “to make sure people get paid for the work that they do, which is not a given at all in the context of immigrant workers,” explained VJC attorney Andrew Turner.
Under the “Contract with America,” Congress amended the Legal Services Act in 1996 to limit eligibility for poverty-based government legal services to legal permanent residents and certain visa workers, excluding even some immigrant workers who had other kinds of legal status, Turner said. Since the Center severed its state and federal connections it has garnered $2 million in judgments and settlements for immigrant workers who have faced workplace issues and housing discrimination.
Turner said half his caseload is undocumented workers. There are 9.3 million such workers nationally, and the Urban Institute estimates about 200,000 of them live in Virginia. Andrews said about 50 percent of the local year-round Hispanic population and 70 percent of the migrant population are undocumented. “They’re frequently maligned in public discourse,” Turner said, because of the idea that they draw on valuable resources and don’t pay taxes. But “undocumented workers by and large do pay taxes,” and at a higher proportion than U.S. citizens. Immigrants’ employers almost always withhold taxes from their employees’ wages, and undocumented workers don’t file to get a tax refund for fear of getting deported, despite legal avenues that allow them to do so.
As a result, the Social Security Administration’s “no-match fund”—created for when Social Security numbers don’t match a live body—in 2002 ballooned to $374 billion, with a $49 billion per year increase, fueled by immigrants who give false social security numbers. “Far from being a drain on federal resources or local government resources, these people are an enormous subsidy to the Social Security Administration.”
Turner pointed out that immigrants can’t drive or get a license, and can only get emergency Medicaid, which Andrews said he’s usually only seen applied to having a baby. Undocumented children have a right to attend public schools until they graduate from high school, but the migrant stream in Virginia is predominantly adult men. About 96 percent of undocumented males work (higher than the national rate), and 5 percent of the overall working population is undocumented.
Some immigrants are eligible for temporary legal status if there has been a disaster in their home country, in which case they will not be deported because their home government is already under duress. This has given 82,000 Hondurans, 4,000 Nicaraguans, 300,000 Salvadorans and some immigrants from African countries such as Sierra Leone legal status.
Turner said his office also represents many guest workers, whose employers hold their visas. “It’s a frequent misperception that if you don’t have a green card or visa you can’t work,” he said, but in reality there are about 10,000 guest workers in Virginia as of 2002, and 66,000 nationally. But the guest worker program has proven problematic, skewing the free-market labor rate. Certain industries in Virginia, such as seafood, have gone from employing all U.S workers to all guest workers. The industry “now magically [is] unable to find enough workers, and overtime and wages have dropped substantially.” Andrews compared the guest worker program to indentured servitude because workers can only stay as long as the employer is satisfied, and blacklisting is a problem if workers complain about wages or conditions.
“There are more and more people here who are really just pursuing the American dream, though undocumented,” added VJC attorney Doug Ford, who also works for the human rights policy organization U.S. Committee for Refugees. “You look in the kitchens in this town, look at who’s cleaning the buildings—so many of them are undocumented, and they’re trying to bring their families. They’re just trying to make a life.”
Ford helps immigrants looking for legal services if they are discovered by federal or local law enforcement. Although local law enforcement are supposed to be limited in policing immigration, in reality they can turn over immigrants to federal investigators because of lack of oversight. “Within a minute you can literally be in a clink,” Ford said. “You can actually fester in detention for quite a while.”
Ford helped start a pro bono project in conjunction with the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition that allowed law students to visit Immigration Customs and Enforcement detention centers. Detained immigrants are often criminal detainees who have served their allotted time but have lost immigration status (if they had it) and “technically have no rights to a lawyer.” CAIR makes “know-your-rights” presentations at detention centers and screens detainees to see if they may have asylum or other immigration claims. Ford also works with students and Richmond law firm Hunton & Williams on specific immigration and asylum cases.
Ford said cases he works on at VJC have included a man with legal status trying to bring his teenaged son into the country illegally. In another case, a woman from a Muslim country here on a J-2 spousal visa was coerced into a divorce. As a lifelong domestic abuse survivor whose government never prevented her husband from abusing her, “there’s a potential asylum claim.” Some immigrants may qualify for a U visa—a victim of crime visa that allows immigrants to stay to testify at trial.
While Ford and Turner work with immigrants’ legal issues, the International Rescue Committee works with refugees who have been relocated to Charlottesville through a contract with the State Department. The IRC was founded in 1933 to help refugees and victims of oppression and violent conflict who cannot return to their home countries, explained Terri DiCintio, the volunteer/resource coordinator at the Charlottesville IRC. As one of 21 IRC offices, her branch handles 150 refugees a year, settling them in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. IRC workers pick up clients at the airport and bring them to housing they have arranged for, help them get IDs and social security numbers, and register kids in school and adults in English classes. In the past year the IRC has handled a large number of Somali Bantus—three to four arrivals a week for six months—because the State Department has tried to cluster clans together when resettling them.
“During our six or so years here we’ve had a lot of success placing refugees in jobs despite a lot of language and cultural barriers,” she said. “Within four months of arrival our clients are generally economically self-sufficient and contributing members of the community.” Only a small percentage of clients leave the area in the first six months to a year after arriving.
Panelist Reuben Marshall coordinates an immigration service for the IRC, working at large in the community for immigrants needing to apply for legal status, renew their status, or seek a green card. Marshall works with the J.B. Moore Society of International Law on the Refugee Green Card Project, which matches volunteers from the law school with refugees who have been here for one year, at which time they can apply for a green card. Refugees have a unique status because there is no expiration on how long they can remain in the United States, Marshall explained. However, after 7 years they won’t be able to receive benefits like Medicaid or Social Security as a refugee. Having a green card, however, allows them to have such benefits and bring their relatives to the United States as well. Although refugees are generally eager to apply for a green card, “they can be very easily overwhelmed by the paperwork requirements.” The Green Card Project trains all volunteers on how to fill out the forms, which can be difficult since some refugees fled their homes in the middle of the night without, for example, a birth certificate. Despite their often harrowing experiences in their home countries, they are often optimistic about their new lives, Marshall said.
In response to a question about how the VJC works with local government, Turner said the interactions he has had usually address community policing issues. “The city and the county are increasingly concerned—particularly the county—about Salvadoran gang activity and would like to be able to get at that,” he said. But since the state attorney general sponsored legislation permitting certain limited police enforcement of immigration, “everyone’s terrified of talking to the police.” Fairfax County addressed the problem by establishing that police policy is to initiate an immigration investigation only when someone is convicted of a felony, as the law allows, but Albemarle County so far has been unwilling to make such a statement.
The panelists agreed that terrorists were unlikely to seek entry into the country as refugees, considering the increased scrutiny they would face and the often prolonged stays in refugee camps abroad. “It’s a pretty tough way to get into the country. I think it’s probably a lot easier to get here illegally than it is to get here as a refugee,” DiCintio said.
Ford noted that the annual number of resettled refugees that was as
high as 100,000 during the 1990s dropped to 26,000 in 2002 and 27,000
in 2003. The president has authorized 70,000 again this year, but Ford
said the State Department needs to adjust from dealing with Cold War
refugees to the larger groups of refugees today. Clustering refugees
such as the Somali Bantus is “the way to get numbers back up."