Panic among Oregon's immigrant community about uncertain federal policy and enforcement has manifested as an increase in need for legal and educational services.
Last week, the Oregon Law Foundation approved an emergency $100,000 grant to three nonprofits that have seen an increased demand for help in immigration matters.
The OLF is a charitable foundation that distributes funds to organizations that help the poor obtain access to legal services, and to those that support understanding of the rule of law.
This emergency grant is in addition to those approved to two of the three organizations during the regular grant cycle last year, and before the national election.
Judith Baker, executive director of the OLF, told the Business Tribune this is the first time the foundation has given an emergency grant.
"The reason we gave the emergency grant is the high need of access to justice happening at the time," Baker said. "The immigration legal services are organizations we give money to are a part of our mission, which is to support access to justice in Oregon by distributing funds to provide legal services to persons of lesser means."
Usually, the OLF gives $1 million annually to nonprofits.
"This year when the election happened and knowing the administration was going to change, there was a lot of trying to understand what was going to happen to the immigrant population," Baker said. "That population experienced a lot of fear, doubt and panic. This caused a great surge of need for immigration nonprofits."
She said there are fraudulent activities that generally flourish during this period of uncertainty. The fake organizations say they'll give immigrants support and information, but really just take their money and leave them still confused. It's called Notario Fraud — that's why the emergency grant couldn't wait.
SOAR, ICS and Catholic Charities each received one third of the $100,000 grant. The three organizations offer distinct services, but have collaborated in areas of high need and are working together to respond to rapidly evolving changes in federal policy, and dramatic increases in those seeking help.
Immigration legal services
Baker said the nonprofits went through the granting cycle successfully, and two of the three received grants last year based on their understanding of the need at the time. However, their needs radically changed based on the evolving federal policy and the uncertainty surrounding its enforcement has curated a sense of fear.
"They're getting inundated with the need for the services to the community, so we agreed to give them an emergency grant given the fact they've had an incredible amount of upsurge of need in the immigrant community," Baker said.
SOAR Immigration Legal Services provides culturally competent, immigration-related legal representation and education to low-income refugees and immigrants in Oregon. SOAR is a program of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.
Caroline van der Harten is the director of refugee and immigrant ministries and the managing attorney with SOAR.
"Since the election, the immigrant community has been living in a state of fear and panic," van der Harten said.
Van der Harten's numbers show there are approximately 120,000 undocumented Oregonians. At least 60,000 of those undocumented individuals have children who are American citizens.
"The effect of deporting these individuals will have devastating consequences on our community," van der Harten said. "Many of those who are undocumented have never met with an attorney and are unable to navigate the complex immigration legal landscape."
SOAR provides both documented and undocumented immigrants with legal services and information.
Van der Harten said many of her clients work in contracting, skilled trades and the construction industry, as well as housekeeping, janitorial, food services, food trucks, adult care and certified nursing assistants.
SOAR serves clients from more than 80 countries and a variety of backgrounds.
Van der Harten said integration rather than assimilation is the goal.
When first meeting a client, SOAR's goal is to work with them to assess their immigration options and guide them toward self-sufficiency in a new country with an oftentimes new language.
"When we meet with every client, we have the ultimate goal of Citizenship in mind and do what we can to keep people on track to achieving this goal," van der Harten said. "Often, the first step is gaining a work permit so that they can begin to work legally and provide a better life for themselves and their families."
The next step is adjusting their status to a green card, or legal permanent resident. After five years with a green card, clean record, English skills, and knowledge of the history and civic functions of the U.S. That's all on the citizenship test.
"At our office, in addition to legal services, we provide crime and victimization prevention classes for our newly arriving Cuban and Haitian refugees, ESL/Citizenship classes and Voter Education classes for our newly naturalized U.S. Citizens," van der Harten said. "Unfortunately because immigration law is very limited, not every person will qualify for an immigration remedy or U.S. Citizenship. This also leaves the important task for us to continue to advocate for Comprehensive Immigration Reform."
Banks generating funding
Kateri Walsh, director of media relations for the Oregon State Bar, said the partnership with banks works well with the interest on lawyer trust accounts (IOLTA).
"What is really cool about Oregon in particular — we've been a national leader on this — is that we have a bunch of banks that have generously offered to pay a higher-than-market interest rate on those IOLTA accounts, so that they earn more money to fund these services for the poor," Walsh said. "It's pretty remarkable for the banking industry to do this. Different than a typical charitable check, it's an ongoing program where they continue to offer higher-than-market rates on IOLTA accounts — it's about 90 percent of the funding for the Oregon Law Foundation."
The money usually comes in and out of lawyer bank accounts so quickly it barely has any time to accrue interest. The monetary figures of interest are so low it would cost too much in accounting to manage for clients, so it goes into a pool fund.
It pools all the small figures of interest into one pool of money that then goes to the Oregon Law Foundation to fund legal services.
The leadership banks pay a 1 percent interest rate, 100 times higher than the standard 0.01 percent being paid on regular business checking accounts.
"Because they do that, we're able then to have the resources to get these dollars out to the immigrant community and legal aid community," Baker said. "It's a highly successful partnership between banks and the Oregon Law Foundation … it's a national model unique to ORegon, to have partnerships between banks and the OLF."
Baker said it's the leadership banks who partner with OLF that make it possible to get resources out to the nonprofits.
"It's our partnership that makes us a national model. The banks in Oregon have stepped up, they're quite amazing," Baker said. "To rise to the level, to pay 1 percent or 0.7 percent on trust accounts, to pay that at a time when a business checking account is getting 0.01 percent — that's a big commitment on the parts of the banks."
These banks participate in Oregon's flagship OILTA with a raised interest rate that goes toward supporting nonprofits.