Howard County Times
Howard County

Howard immigration nonprofit looks into restructuring amid financial concerns

Applications for citizenship and other forms are seen in the offices of the Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network in Columbia in 2018.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump made immigration a focal point of his platform. After he was elected, the nation’s system underwent changes — including family separations at the border, travel bans for those coming from some Muslim-majority countries and longer, more extensive application forms.

The way some of these changes manifest in Howard County can be seen at the Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network. The Columbia-based nonprofit provides attorneys to help people navigate the intricate immigration processes, including obtaining green cards and petitioning for citizenship and asylum.


And since Trump took office, FIRN’s immigration services have been overwhelmed, according to its president, Hector Garcia. For the past two years, the nonprofit has had a lengthy waiting list, sometimes stretching five months.

The lack of increased local funding, combined with more stringent demands on its immigration services, has put the nonprofit in a bind, said Garcia.


“We are under capacity to provide to individuals that might have urgent needs when it comes to immigration,” Garcia said. He is looking into “redirecting efforts” to help with funding, which could include staff reductions, he said.

The efforts could also mean reducing services so the nonprofit can prioritize urgent immigrant needs. Immigration services are just a fraction of FIRN’s efforts. The nonprofit also provides access to food and assistance with domestic violence victims, human trafficking survivors, language interpretation and career development, according to its website.

“We know we can’t save the world,” Garcia said. “We know we don’t have the capacity or the money to help everyone who is in need.”

Before 2016, the nonprofit was able to provide 5,000 people with immigration services annually. However, since Trump became president, that number has been reduced to 4,000 because the workload for FIRN counselors is more demanding, Garcia said.

FIRN counselor Pedro Reyes attributed much of the strain on the way immigration applications are managed. Applications are longer and are often denied because of simple mistakes, like using incorrect date formatting, Reyes said. The legal services they provide are cheaper than private attorneys and other nonprofits, causing a lot more people to flock to them, he added.

Though Garcia previously said the nonprofit wouldn’t “turn anyone away,” they have been forced to reject at least 500 cases this year. The denials are hurting FIRN’s ability to stay financially afloat, Garcia said. Taking on more clients often means more revenue, he said, noting the organization usually waives fees if an individual is below the poverty line.

The nonprofit, with clients from Howard, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, mostly relies on the Howard County government to provide most of the funding for its $1.1 million annual budget.

Under former Howard county executives Ken Ulman and Allan Kittleman, the amount slowly increased and given the nonprofit the ability to expand its reach. This upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, County Executive Calvin Ball contributed $639,738 from the Howard’s operating budget.


Though this is the same amount given last year, Garcia said it feels like less because of the continually increasing strain on FIRN’s immigration services.

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When asked why Ball— who as a councilman co-sponsored a bill that would have made Howard a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants — did not increase funding to the organization, Jacqueline R. Scott, director of the county Department of Community Resources and Services, said, “Recognizing that we are in a time where there is limited growth in our budgets and spending … we are balancing the need to be fiscally responsible with the need to support critical human service needs.”

“We were able to do this by continuing to fund FIRN at a level rate so that they can continue offering critically needed immigration services. We are aware that there are growing needs in our community so DCRS and other county agencies are also utilizing additional county staff and resources to ensure that gaps are filled and services are provided.”

The county, alongside the state and other nonprofits, provides services including shelter for the homeless, food subsidies, workforce training and case management for residents, Scott noted.

“While it may appear that the investment in this population is limited to FIRN’s allocation, it is in fact larger when you factor in the county’s overall commitment to serve our undocumented population,” she added.

But Garcia said people are flocking to FIRN because they are a known and trusted entity within the foreign-born community. Those in the community often avoid public services for fear it could lead to retribution from the federal government, he said.


After the Trump administration last year proposed using a “public charge” determination to potentially make it more difficult for immigrants to get green cards, the Urban Institute surveyed 314 adults in immigrant families in the country and found nearly 14% reported “chilling effects.” They avoided “non-cash” government assistance benefit programs for fear of risking future green cards, the report said. The Washington-based independent research group also reported the figure for adults in low-income families was even higher— 20.7%

“It’s not going to be easy for FIRN to be sustainable without taking away some of the services that we provide,” Garcia said. “It’s no big news that you can’t overextend your organization to the point that you end up helping no one.”