ON YOUR SIDE:
Defense Team Helps Navigate
Murky Waters Of Legal Gumbo
By Andrew Moesel
Ever try to read tax law when filing your return, to decipher the building code when renovating your kitchen, or to figure out a summons from a policeman? Pretty confusing, isn’t it – that’s why they make lawyers go to school for three years.
Now imagine having to do any one of those things without understanding the language of the document, distrusting the government that created it, and not being able to afford an attorney to make sense of it all.
That’s the situation that many immigrants find themselves in when they face modern life’s inevitable confrontations with the legal system, made increasingly complicated by their immigration status and the Byzantine process that often bars the doors to naturalization, immigration advocates say.
HERE TO HELP
Luckily, some lawyers in Queens offer free legal services to immigrants, helping them with everything from labor issues to minor criminal charges (it doesn’t take much of an offense to be deported nowadays). Although demand for such services always outstrips available supply, many lawyers are sacrificing their time to help and, at the very least, point people in the right direction.
Stan Mark, program director at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, heads a small team of attorneys who do pro bono work for immigrants out of offices in New Jersey, Manhattan and Flushing. Because the lawyers are not an official legal aid society, they receive no government funding or compensation for their time.
But when speaking with Mark, if his lawyerly tone stops short of compassion, it certainly suggests a determination to protect well-meaning people against a bureaucratic vacuum, which can swallow both personal information and rights. It’s easy to hear the frustration that he feels dealing with an immigration system he describes as “broken,” a sentiment he shares with most of his clients.
“The system is not working in a way that is humane,” Mark said. “It doesn’t have any regard for human rights and how people should be treated or make a living.”
On a weekly basis, Mark and his colleagues hold seminars on a variety of topics relevant to immigrants, including federal immigration and family law. Mark said the most common question comes from Asian immigrants who have overstayed their visas and now are wondering how to become citizens. The legal option for these people are very few, and have only grown smaller since 1996, he said.
WORK WITHIN THE LAW
The AALDEF lawyers are more successful helping documented immigrants to understand the complicated naturalization forms they must navigate to become citizens. On the day immigrant are sworn in, volunteers from the group also stand outside the federal building and register new citizens to vote.
Most of these services and seminars are held on an appointment only basis, because there are simply too many cases and not enough lawyers to handle them all. In 90 percent of the cases the organization does handle, the person is only referred to another lawyer.
The City University of New York Law School has partnered with AALDEF to provide a program where law students are made available one evening a week to handle some walk-in cases. It’s the first time the Law School has opened it doors directly to the immigrant community, its Web site says.
To narrow down the caseload, lawyers must take on cases that can have the broadest implications for other immigrants and therefore cause the greatest impact.
“I’ve gotten three or four calls just today,” Mark said. “We just don’t take them unless there’s some bigger issue.”