HUDSON — As the issues over immigration heat up, a local organization is working to aid immigrants in need of legal representation but who can’t afford it.
Three members of the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement are undergoing training to comply with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Recognition and Accreditation Program, according to Jarin Ahmed, a member of the group’s Coordinating Committee.
The organization assists immigrants in both Columbia and Greene counties.
The Recognition and Accreditation Program enables “accredited representatives” who are not attorneys but have undergone specialized training to represent immigrants in immigration-related legal matters, according to the U.S. Department of Justice website.
“These representatives are accredited through the Recognition and Accreditation Program, which aims to increase the availability of competent immigration legal representation for low-income and indigent persons, thereby promoting the effective and efficient administration of justice,” according to the Department of Justice.
The Columbia County Sanctuary Movement is seeking both recognition for the organization and partial accreditation for three of its members.
“We have already completed the necessary training; we are just compiling our applications,” Sanctuary Movement Executive Director Bryan MacCormack said. “There are two parts to the process — the organization first has to be recognized as a nonprofit that provides indigent legal services to immigrants. And individuals have to be accredited. We will submit our recognition paperwork at the same time we submit our accreditation documents. We hope to submit that by the end of September. We are hoping it will be approved by the end of February.”
MacCormack and Ahmed are two of the three Sanctuary Movement members undergoing training and several more are expected to follow, Ahmed said. All are volunteers who would provide legal assistance in immigration matters at little to no cost.
“Several of us have already gone to New York City and done a 40-hour training, and now it’s a matter of submitting all our documents to the Department of Justice and getting approval from them,” Ahmed said.
While fully accredited representatives can represent clients in immigration court, the three members of the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement are undergoing training to become partially accredited representatives who can assist immigrants with legal matters on affirmative applications or to adjust their immigration status. They will also be able to represent clients in interviews with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, MacCormack said.
The Columbia County Sanctuary Movement has been working with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, which has provided ongoing resources for their training as well as mentorship in setting up a legal program. The 40-hour training was provided by the New York Immigration Coalition, and the group also works with a supervising attorney, MacCormack said.
After the three organization members receive partial accreditation, they may eventually pursue full accreditation, which would allow them to represent clients in immigration court, he noted.
“We want to get our feet under us and understand what is involved before we commit and train to become fully accredited representatives,” MacCormack said.
Columbia County Public Defender Dominic J. Cornelius, a former public defender for Greene County, said both counties lack attorneys who specialize in immigration law.
“I think there is a lack of immigration attorneys in Greene and Columbia counties, and many of the people who face immigration issues don’t have sufficient funds to afford an immigration attorney, so having individuals who are trained and certified does fill a vacuum that exists in both Greene and Columbia counties,” Cornelius said. “I cannot think of a single attorney in either county that handles immigration matters.”
When a client at the public defender’s office has a case that could have immigration implications, Cornelius said his department’s attorneys use a helpline and the assistance of an attorney in Westchester County who offers advice on how to best represent their client.
“While we don’t have resources in Greene County or Columbia County, we do avail ourselves of resources outside the county and they have been extremely helpful in guiding us in how to represent our clients with regard to the consequences that a conviction could have on removal,” Cornelius said.
But that assistance goes only so far, Cornelius said. Public defenders don’t represent clients on immigration matters.
“Our office only represents individuals when they are charged with a crime and conviction would have consequences on their immigration status, but we don’t represent them in immigration court,” Cornelius said.
The Columbia County Sanctuary Movement is looking to fill a gap in the Twin Counties when it comes to obtaining legal advice on immigration matters, Ahmed said.
“The Department of Justice created this system because of the lack of immigration attorneys,” Ahmed said.
To obtain representation from an immigration attorney, local immigrants have to travel long distances from the Twin Counties, MacCormack said.
“People in our area have to travel at least 45 miles to get to an immigration attorney, and that doesn’t even account for whether or not they are affordable,” he said. “The Columbia County Sanctuary Movement is trying to increase access to affordable legal representation and we know that if we want gutsy movement-based immigration attorneys in this area, we have to develop them ourselves.”
Three other Capital Region organizations have received recognition through the federal program, according to the U.S. Department of Justice website: Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany, Capital District Women’s Bar Association Legal Project, Inc., and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. All are based in Albany.