Howard County immigration counseling nonprofit strives to meet demand

These days when some people walk through the doors of FIRN, immigration attorney Sarah Choi said they often have a similar look on their faces— one she describes as panic and uncertainty.

"We have seen people come in, and there's kind of this look, they're like, 'I need help!'" Choi said. "I've seen it in [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] clients, I've seen it in people applying for green cards, we'll do the application and then at the end they're just like, 'So, what are the chances that I'm going to get deported?' There's definitely this level of fear and of generally being nervous."


That sense of fear is one that Hector Garcia, CEO and executive director of FIRN, which stands for Foreign-born Information and Referral Network, said has become increasingly common in clients since the November 2016 election, when President Donald Trump began ushering in tighter immigration policies, including reductions in the number of refugee admissions into the U.S. and increased action by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

FIRN, a nonprofit in a small office in Columbia, provides immigrants with a variety of resources, including immigration legal services and case management.


The 11-person staff includes two immigration attorneys and two Board of Immigration Appeals-accredited immigration representatives who handle clients' legal counseling.

A bill before the County Council this session could add a host of regulations to relations between Howard County tenants and landlords.

FIRN is the county's sole Justice Department-accredited immigration counseling services organization, reaching about 20,000 people a year with its services.

Each attorney meets with an average of five clients a day, according to Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator Meredith Hochman. On one recent day an attorney scheduled for three clients squeezed in another seven appointments when more people came through the door.

As of 2016, Howard County, with a population of roughly 317,233, was home to approximately 61,263 immigrants, according to Census Bureau estimates. Statewide, 27 percent of the immigrant population is undocumented, according to 2015 data from the American Immigration Council, a D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group.


In the last year-and-a-half, Garcia said FIRN has had a nearly 40 percent increase in client demand. In March, the waiting list for a consultation stretched to July.

"If we were a business we would say wonderful, we got more demand than we expected, we're going to hire some people," Garcia said. "We're facing the reality that now the increase in requests is based on, 'Help me, I don't know what's going to happen to me, I might be getting deported, nobody wants me in this country, I'm hiding, my kids are afraid, what can you do and it's urgent.'"

The rise in the number of clients and the urgency of each call has stretched FIRN's staff thin, Garcia said. It's why the nonprofit, which received more than half of its $1.07 million budget from the county last year, requested $801,200, a more than 30 percent increase, from the county this year.

For the first time in recent years, Garcia said the staff is looking at reviewing and raising its fees. Currently, a consultation for new clients is $30 for what is slated as a 30 minute appointment, but because those consultations are now taking longer as the immigration process becomes more scrutinized, Garcia said it's likely the fee will go up to $45 for a 45- to 50-minute appointment.

To raise the rest of its operating money, FIRN relies on fundraising, donations and its translation services. But bringing in donations for a group that does work that can be politically divisive can be difficult, Hochman said.

After a fatal crash on Monday morning, residents are making renewed calls for traffic calming in historic Ellicott City's west end.

"For a lot of people, what we do is abstract enough to them that they don't see why their dollars need to come in our door," Hochman said. "In their minds, immigration is about policy, it's not about people."

In County Executive Allan Kittleman's budget proposal released last week, FIRN would get $645,438, a 9 percent increase from last year. While not as much funding as he was hoping for, Garcia said it is still a sizable increase above previous years. In fiscal 2018, FIRN received a 4 percent funding bump and the year before, 2 percent.

"All in all we're comfortable with the percent increase we got, even though it's obviously not going to meet every need, but then we need to be innovative and do what we can to help ourselves," he said.

Garcia had wanted to use the requested funding to hire an additional administrative assistant to help discern the level of urgency in client service requests, hire an additional full-time immigration attorney and to expand FIRN's after-school tutoring program. With the lower funding level, he said the organization will likely hire a paralegal rather than an immigration attorney and will hire a part-time administrative assistant.

The additional staff, Garcia said, will help FIRN bring down its wait list and see more clients a day.

"I've been attacked by the perception that if we are helping undocumented people and the present administration in D.C. doesn't want undocumented people, why should I be getting government money?" Garcia said.

"It's a little bit difficult when you're saying, 'I need your money to support individuals that some of you don't want in this country,'" Garcia said.

That difficulty lies at the heart of why some groups, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, oppose government funding of any level for immigration services groups. FAIR came out against the failed proposed Howard County bill in 2017 that would have declared the county a "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants.

"These [groups] should not be priorities or even on the radar screen for local governments. There's so many other priorities, the idea that they are going to spend money to help people that are here illegally to fight removal, it's misspending public funds," said FAIR spokesman Ira Mehlman. "There are all kinds of charitable needs that could be addressed and that is why we have these foundations set up to address these certain needs. Governments should not be responsible for helping you navigate every single thing you might encounter."

Immigration policies continue to change Washington. In September, Trump sent panic throughout the immigrant community when he moved to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a federal initiative aimed at protecting immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation. That cancellation has been delayed and federal lawmakers continue toward a deal on the program.

In March, the U.S. Census Bureau announced it would ask for citizenship status as part of the 2020 census, which caused renewed anxiety throughout the local foreign-born community, Garcia said.

ICE enforcement numbers have soared under President Trump. In fiscal 2017 the agency made 143,470 arrests, a 30 percent increase compared to 2016, according to the federal agency. Beginning after Trump's January inauguration, ICE made 110,568 arrests, 42 percent higher than during the same time period in 2016.

"That generates a large amount of people who say, 'Oh my god if I don't do something about my citizenship by 2020, they're going to ask and I'm going to get deported," Garcia said. "The plan is to know [their] status so they can do something."

Columbia faces losing more than half its neighborhood centers to financial difficulties and changing lifestyles, which angers and saddens many in the Howard County town that was founded on principle of community.

FIRN is not alone in seeing a rise in need in recent months. Representatives from groups throughout the region, including Catholic Charities' Esperanza Center and World Relief Baltimore Immigration Legal Clinic, both in Baltimore City, CASA de Maryland, with locations across the state and the Immigrant Justice Clinic at American University's Washington College of Law in D.C. all noted an increase in client demand in recent months, whether it's for immigration legal services, medical services or "know your rights" education.


Despite the range of service providers in the region, Jayesh Rathod, director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic, said there's still a lack of manpower to take on the number of people seeking help.

"FIRN is doing kind of heroic work, but there's no question in my mind that there's a major deficit in legal services in the area," Rathod said. "A number of times a week we get clients who say, 'We've tried calling everybody and no one has room.' There just simply aren't enough resources to meet the demand."

At the Esperanza Center in Fells Point, Managing Attorney for Legal Immigration Services Heather Benno said staff has seen an uptick in clients seek legal aid, which has translated into an increase in those seeking medical service, as many look to take care of any medical issues in case of deportation or detention. The center sees roughly 11,000 clients a year across its programs, according to Client Services Manager Eric Seymour.

As a result of a rise in clients, Benno said the center has had to restructure its system, and now accepts walk-in appointments each morning.

Looking into the future, Rathod said it's unlikely that the anxiety or desire for help will go down. And as federal policies continue to change, he said that makes it more difficult to help people.

"Referring cases for deportation, or changing criteria for who merits the grant for asylum, there's nothing that as an immigration lawyer I can do about that on an individual case once the law is changed, other than trying to get that policy undone through litigation," he said. "So you can hire 10 new attorneys, but if the requirements change so that people are no longer qualified that doesn't help much."

At FIRN, Garcia said he's committed to continuing to help people with the resources they have and to try to grow with the demand.

"I don't see anything that will indicate that we will either stay stagnate or reduce in capacity. I see us acquiring more space across the hall, I see getting more resources because we serve a function that no one else can," Garcia said. "I think we just stay the course, remain on our mission and continue to express that human need for services, rather than we support this agenda or that agenda."

Recommended on Baltimore Sun