The most interesting question about President Barack Obama's action on immigration is not its legality. Presidents from Eisenhower forward, Republicans and Democrats alike, have used their executive authority to legalize immigrants in large and small measures, and their actions roused little debate.
In fact, most Americans want the situation of the undocumented to be regularized. (Last week, 60 percent of respondents in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll favored a path to citizenship for immigrants.) President Obama's program, in which nearly 4 million immigrants will be eligible for a new status that would permit them to work legally, is a promising start.
The key question for me, as the director of the University of Baltimore School of Law's Immigrant Rights Clinic, is how to best reach, educate and serve those immigrants in Maryland who may be able to benefit from Mr. Obama's announcement — and how to help them avoid victimization
"Notarios," for example, are scam artists who purport to be lawyers who can help immigrants, then too often take their money only to ruin their chances of gaining lawful immigration status because the notarios miss deadlines for paperwork, file incorrect forms and lie on documents, among other things. Notarios prey upon immigrants who are unable to afford to hire reputable immigration lawyers and who cannot find help through nonprofit legal-services organizations, charging thousands of dollars to often ruin an immigrant's asylum chances.
Education is a critical piece of the work to combat fraud by notarios. But it's equally critical that immigrants have viable alternatives to these con artists. An estimated 275,000 Marylanders have no lawful immigration status. Thanks to President Obama, many of these people — who live, work and pay taxes in our communities — now may be able to leave the shadows. But will we be able to meet their need for legal services?
This new initiative comes as many of us are still reeling from our efforts to meet the legal needs of refugee children from Central America. My students have been screening cases at the Esperanza Center in Baltimore and representing many of the children in their asylum and other immigration cases. Students at the University of Maryland attend immigration court hearings for the children, handing out information about where immigrants can go to get legitimate legal information.
Local groups, including the Esperanza Center, KIND (Kids In Needs of Defense), the Tahirih Justice Center and the Pro Bono Resource Center have been working hard to place these cases with pro bono attorneys, while the Maryland Immigrant Rights Coalition and the Mid-Shore Pro Bono organization have been shining a light on the special issues of immigrants on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The immigrants' needs are vast, and the resources to help them are stretched thin, despite the exceptional compassion and commitment of everyone from the immigration judges to the service providers.
With President Obama's executive order, the thirst for legal assistance among Maryland's immigrants will grow exponentially. If the private bar and nonprofit service providers cannot meet the demand, too many hopeful immigrants will patronize the notarios, who sell — at often exorbitant rates — services they are not competent or authorized to deliver. We in the legal community must do better. We must embark upon a robust campaign to educate immigrants about the importance of securing competent representation. And we must invest in the service providers who know how to deliver excellent legal services to Maryland's diverse immigrant communities, from Salvadorans in the suburbs closest to Washington to Hondurans in Annapolis to Haitians on the Eastern Shore.
The influx of Central American refugee children this summer and fall has brought out the best in Maryland's government, as well as in the state's private bar and nonprofit community, but it also showed how thinly stretched our collective resources are. We are in a moment of enormous possibility, where those who have become part of the fabric of Maryland life — and the Maryland economy — can step into the light, if not onto a path to citizenship. Maryland, from the government to the private bar to the foundations to private citizens, needs to meet the challenge by volunteering and by funding the organizations that know how to meet these needs so they can help bring these Marylanders from shadow into light.
Elizabeth Keyes is the director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.