Why Evangelical Churches Are Getting Into The Legal Services Business

CREDIT: Esther Y. Lee

Activists carried signs supporting immigration reform in McAllen, Texas in July 2014.

For all their prayer and legal counsel needs, immigrant congregants can now head to church. A coalition of 15 evangelical church-based denominations that represent more than 28,500 churches launched national efforts Tuesday to provide free to low-cost legal services to immigrants who are unable to find or pay for attorneys to handle immigration paperwork on their own.

Organized by The Immigration Alliance with help from the World Relief, at least 29 church-based sites will begin providing immigrants with legal counseling on immigration-related issues like determining eligibility for benefits, assisting in preparing applications for legal immigration status, supporting victims of crime and domestic violence, and assisting in reuniting families. The churches also plan on helping undocumented immigrants who need application assistance for the President’s 2012 executive action known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and are planning on getting ready for any impending executive action that may affect millions of people.

The initiative has sprung up in churches located in immigrant-heavy “hot spots” like Los Angeles, California; Chicago, Illinois; Miami, Florida; and New York, New York. The initiative has also cropped up in Iowa and Indiana, where it’s more difficult for immigrants too afraid to talk with lawyers or are unable to find lawyers who speak their languages. Churches also provide the extra incentive of being a “trusted presence in immigrant communities” where immigrants believe they will find “honest and trustworthy” legal service, the press release stated.

“It’s a program that we felt needed to be met because immigrants can’t afford to see lawyers otherwise,” Courtney Tudi, World Relief immigration lawyer, told ThinkProgress Tuesday.

In order for non-lawyers to provide legal representation, volunteers and staff members must go through a rigorous accreditation process through the federal Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). They must pass legal training requirements like receiving in-class training from immigration attorneys. They must also use their classroom training to observe and help with client interviews under the supervision of immigration attorneys or someone else with BIA accreditation, Tudi said. The sites must have a legal resource library and a legal technical support provider so that they can call other experienced staff members or immigration attorneys from places like World Relief so that they won’t need an attorney on staff at the churches. Services will be funded through member contributions, with some churches relying on community funding or start-up grants.

According to the Department of Justice website, non-lawyers can become either partially or fully accredited. Partially accredited representatives may represent immigrants before the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) only. A fully accredited representative may represent immigrants before DHS and in the immigration court. Nearly all of the church sites are currently partially accredited.

The initiative is part of the church’s moral obligation to help immigrants, Damon Schroeder, Immigration Alliance’s executive director, told ThinkProgress Tuesday. “Both the Old and New Testaments points to God’s heart [to help] immigrants wherever they may be. People of God are responsible for treating our neighbors as ourselves.”

Immigrants who are better prepared for court proceedings not only have have a better chance of winning their cases, but also have a higher rate of showing up to court. That’s because immigrants do not have a right to a lawyer. One study found that an overwhelming 97 percent of immigrant detainees without legal representation lost their case, while 74 percent of those with legal representation had successful outcomes.

Churches have increasingly become involved in helping immigrants stay in the country, sometimes even openly challenging federal laws by protecting immigrants with final deportation orders. More than two dozen congregations are extending physical sanctuary to immigrants who are in the deportation process, relying on an unofficial Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy not to raid places of worship, playgrounds, and schools. Organizers of the New Sanctuary Movement — which provides shelter and food to immigrants and is patterned after the original Sanctuary Movement for Central Americans that began in 1980 — hope that officials will keep to that promise.

There’s no word yet on whether the initiative could bring more lawyers into churches though.