Evelin Yajaira Flores Ceren left El Salvador as a child to escape the gangs in her homeland. Abandoned by her father, Ceren had trouble affording necessities, let alone the legal aid she needed once she arrived in the United States.
Thanks to the work of JFCS Pittsburgh and its Immigration Legal Services, Ceren was designated a Special Immigrant Juvenile and is on the path to receiving her green card.
Ceren’s story is typical of the cases handled by JFCS’ Immigration Legal Services, according to attorney John Cavicchio, the pro bono and family law coordinator for JFCS.
The work the social agency does covers a large spectrum, he said.
“We have some people who are leaving a country like Ukraine, who have what is called temporary status — who are in a very, very acute dire situation and need legal relief to be able to stay here,” Cavicchio said.
Other people are coming from countries that are not necessarily war-torn, but are still facing grave challenges, he said, including lacking necessities or persecution for their religion, gender or sexual orientation.
“We are engaged with immigrants and refugees in all of those scenarios,” Cavicchio said.
Volunteer attorneys and paralegals help JFCS provide needed assistance, he said. While the nonprofit could use more help across all spectrums of its work, there are some immediate needs.
“The first is with minors who are immigrants and may qualify for what is called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status,” he said. Often, proceedings start with a child protective services hearing or as a custody case in front of a family court judge.
“They have the power, in some cases, if an immigrant child is here by himself or herself to, in addition to making a ruling on custody-related matters, say the child might qualify as a Special Immigrant Juvenile,” Cavicchio said.
Given those parameters, attorneys with a family law background who have handled custody cases are helpful volunteers, he said.
Other areas of legal help provided by Cavicchio and his volunteers are typical immigration services, including family-based immigration, U Visas (victims of various crimes), T Visas (human trafficking victims) or VAWA claims (domestic violence victims).
Cavicchio said most of the work the agency does is with minors but that JFCS assists wherever needed.
JFCS is looking for more volunteers to help with legal issues. Each year, the agency resettles approximately 500 refugees in the Pittsburgh area, all of whom are encouraged and eligible to apply for permanent resident status after one year in the country. Most turn to JFCS for legal representation when that time comes.
Cavicchio said volunteers don’t necessarily need to be immigration lawyers to assist.
“We would strongly ask that anyone interested consider reaching out,” Cavicchio said.
On Aug. 24, JFCS is partnering with the Allegheny County Bar Foundation for a free Continuing Legal Education event on Zoom to help non-immigration lawyers learn more about the process of refugee adjustment of status.
One week later, on Aug. 31, Cavicchio said, there will be a clinic in conjunction with the Foundation, helping refugees apply for green cards.
Barbara Griffin, director of the Foundation’s Pro Bono Center, said this type of volunteering is baked into the expectation of practicing law.
“In Pennsylvania, and most states around the country, there’s a rule of professional conduct that governs attorney ethics,” she explained. “Those rules, specifically Rule 6.1, state that a lawyer should provide legal services to people who cannot afford an attorney.”
While it’s not a mandate that lawyers volunteer their time, Griffin said the Pro Bono Center does its best to recruit and support attorneys, making it as easy as possible to volunteer.
“There’s a huge gap in this country,” she said, “between people who have a legal issue and those who get the legal help they need. There’s a lot of need but we do our best to use volunteer attorneys to meet it.”
Griffin said that CLE events like the one on Aug. 24 are important because being a lawyer is mostly a self-regulating profession, requiring attorneys to stay up to date about changes in the law. As a result, Pennsylvania attorneys must have 12 hours of Continuing Legal Education a year.
With events like the one planned in August, Griffin said, the center can leverage its 5,000-plus members to mobilize and help organizations like JFCS.
Griffin said she has a passion for the type of work the Pro Bono Center does.
“I became a lawyer because I wanted to help people,” she said. “I started out with a private firm but pretty quickly moved to public interest work.”
Griffin said she has volunteered with JFCS in the past and has attempted to do pro bono work with all the types of cases the center handles.
“I try to have experience so that I know what it’s like to handle this type of case, so I can tell a volunteer exactly what it’s like to do this type of work,” she said.
Lawyers from across western Pennsylvania are needed, Cavicchio said. He noted that attorneys should not be worried that language will be a barrier since JFCS provides translators when needed.
Cavicchio said the agency can always use more volunteers, and that there is some downward pressure on their caseload.
“A child is only eligible to apply for special immigrant juvenile status until his or her 18th birthday, so if we have a child who falls in our lap right before their 18th birthday, we may have to rush to do his or her case, whereas, we might have a child that’s 11 that’s been waiting and as much as we would like to be filing legal paperwork, we have to put that on the back burner,” he said. “We don’t turn anyone away; we say that as a point of pride, but we can’t get to all of them as fast as we’d like.”
For more information about the Aug. 24 Zoom CLE event or to register, go to jfcspgh.org/event/jfcs-immigration-legal-services. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.