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Friday, September 1, 2023

Catholic Charities Immigration Court Helpdesk Provides Hope to Immigrants in Need of Legal Assistance

An older gentleman approached the elevators at Boston’s crowded Immigration Court, a look of fear on his face.

He flagged down Elizabeth McCarthy, who at the time was working as Catholic Charities’ managing attorney. In Spanish, he explained his confusion and asked for her help in translating his paperwork.

He had no idea that the paperwork stated that his last hearing was happening that afternoon, and a decision about whether he could stay in the U.S., would be made in just a few hours.

“Because of the language barrier and a lack of education on the legal process, he was completely unaware a major decision about his life was being made that day.” said Elizabeth. “I felt absolutely heartbroken, knowing I could not help him in that moment.”

It was one of many experiences that showed Catholic Charities legal staff just how urgent of a need there was for a program that provided free legal information to unrepresented immigrants at risk of deportation.

Months later, in February 2022, the Immigration Court Helpdesk was born, a program that aims to demystify the Boston Immigration Court process by providing free assistance and legal information to unrepresented respondents in removal proceedings, helping to ease anxiety and empower people to make informed decisions about their cases and lives.

To date, the program has helped thousands of people. Meeting with individuals and families in person at the Labouré Center, at the Boston Immigration Court, or over the phone, the Immigration Court Helpdesk staff seek to educate every person they work with on their rights and responsibilities in Immigration Court, on how to check the date of their next hearings, how to transfer their case from one Immigration court to another, how to change their mailing address with the court, how to build a defense case against removal, and how to connect clients to an attorney and find additional legal support.

Because those at risk of deportation do not have the right to a free attorney to defend them in immigration court, finding a free or low-cost attorney who has availability to take on new clients is an extremely daunting task, as demand far exceeds supply. The alternative is to hire a private attorney, which most cannot afford, with some charging up to $20,000 for a family’s asylum case.

Maria Rendon, a legal assistant on the team who works the helpdesk hotline, said she is always stunned at how grateful clients are to encounter someone who is willing to listen.

“They often say, ‘I’ve been praying for someone to answer my calls and help me.’ They are often just so grateful to be listened to and treated like a person and not like a number,” said Maria.

Collectively fluent in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Haitian-Creole, the six program staff members said their goal is to meet each person where they are, not only sharing information in the individual’s language but also avoiding legal jargon and providing explanations that are digestible for someone who is likely experiencing stress, uncertainty, and often, trauma.

“It’s an honor to be told these stories and trusted with these complicated feelings,” said Immigration Court Helpdesk paralegal, Carolina Espinal. “The legal and technical work is obviously important, but we are also able to pick up on when someone might be traumatized, or when they may be in need of other wraparound services.”

“Sometimes, the greatest service we can offer is simply showing compassion.”

Sarah Joseph, a paralegal on the team and Haitian-American, is known for stepping in to help comfort the children who are so often in court with their parents, when their mother or father is engaged in a hearing. She will step off to the side quietly, softly speaking to the children, sometimes rocking a crying baby, sometimes just offering a pat on the shoulder and a kind word.

“We all speak the language of respect and humanity,” Sarah says.

To learn more about the Immigration Court Helpdesk, click here.

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