High costs pose barrier to residency, citizenship
Immigrants in the Roaring Fork Valley who would otherwise be eligible for legal residency or citizenship face big hurdles along the way: a complex set of laws, financial burden, scammers looking to cash in on the process and fear that starting the process is risky.
Jon Fox-Rubin, executive director of the Carbondale-based Valley Settlement Project, said his organization has run across many families living on subsistence wages who are unable to take the financial risk of starting the process to get legal residency.
Fox-Rubin is seeking out partnerships with local government and businesses to start a fund for people wading through the immigration process, but as it stands, “the Roaring Fork Valley has very limited financial resources for people seeking a green card or citizenship.”
Such a fund could set up a loan program or pay for legal consultations, he said.
The area already has a high cost of living, and the immigration legal process can cost $8,000 to $12,000 and have an uncertain timeline, he said.
For now, Catholic Charities is a singular local resource for people in the immigration process. The charity offers discounted legal services, which attorney Cheryl Martinez said can generally cut the costs from thousands to hundreds of dollars. Attorneys do this partly by finding the legal steps that clients can do themselves rather than paying an attorney to do.
But Martinez, based in Denver, also went to great lengths to stress that many immigration cases are not a good fit for Catholic Charities’ attorneys. These cases simply need greater attention than can be handled with charity resources.
Immigration law is a complex animal, said Glenwood Springs immigration attorney Jennifer Smith, pulling out a 2,214-page book summarizing U.S. immigration law.
That complexity alone can be “a huge barrier for someone who’s working all the time, doesn’t like forms anyway, doesn’t speak the language – and now you’re telling them they’ve got a multistep process in variable forms and no guarantee of success,” she said.
And it’s been a longstanding mentality that starting the process opens immigrants to risk of deportation, said Smith. Many of these people worked for decades to stay off the radar and are scared of even putting their information out there, she said.
In some cases, a person seeking residency may have to go back to U.S. embassy in their country, which causes hardship by breaking up their family for an unknown period of time, said Fox-Rubin.
If the process forces people to go back to their country of origin and then they face a bar to re-entry, they could be kept out of the U.S. for years.
One significant driver of legal costs is whether the person needs a waiver for a “bar from entry,” such as for a criminal conviction, which complicates an immigration case. A waiver can tack on thousands in legal costs, said Ted Hess, a Glenwood immigration attorney.
The main system for immigrating to the U.S. is a “family-sponsored system,” said Hess.
In general, the quota for family-sponsored visas is 226,000 in any particular year, and no single country can have more than 25,620 people enter with visa in a year, he said. “And there are tremendous backlogs with decades-long waiting lists that are one reason the immigration system is broken.”
“The reason for the large number of undocumented workers and families is not because they don’t want to (have legal status). It’s because they don’t have a petitioner. There’s no path to citizenship for them.
“Some people can do this without using an attorney if they have clean cases, but immigration law is really a trap for the unwary,” said Hess.
Hess said all of his clients are on payment plans.
Smith said her office is representing 15 to 20 pro bono immigration cases.
Because private attorneys are expensive, people will more likely go to someone who isn’t a licensed attorney, or who doesn’t specialize as an immigration attorney, said Smith.
Martinez as well warned of people who take advantage of immigrants looking for affordable legal advice.
Smith referred to them as “notarios,” because in Spanish-speaking countries a notary is a position of education or esteem much like a lawyer. In the U.S. being a notary just means you can verify a signature, but unscrupulous people will take advantage of a Hispanic person’s misperception.
Martinez said some fraudsters will draft fake court documents to keep their victims paying. Some are even bold enough to show up in court and pass themselves off as a translator, she said.
“Despite our educational efforts, there’s no decline of immigrants who’ll seek advice from unlicensed people,” Smith said.
Defrauding immigrants happens in the Denver area, said Martinez, but Smith added that it’s just as big of a problem in western Colorado.
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