Grantee Spotlight: Immigration Services and Beyond: Catholic Migration Services

On a Tuesday evening in the Woodside section of Queens, NY, hundreds of immigrants gather in the meeting space of a parish hall. Reflecting the unrivaled diversity of their city, they hail from dozens of different countries, ethnicities and religious backgrounds. As they enter the room, many bring plates of home cooked food to be placed among the pot luck dishes assembled on a long table. Row after row of folding chairs is filled up as the space becomes crowded and familiar faces greet one another.

In the front of the room, a presentation is about to begin and community members are working to set up the audio–visual systems. In the rear of the room, several tables are joined together with chairs on either side. Lined up on one side are individuals and families holding bundles of papers and folders. On the other side, staff attorneys and volunteers from Catholic Migration Services listen to questions, review documents and try to understand the legal issues affecting each person who has come before them.

However, almost every interaction begins with a friendly handshake or hug and a kiss, often accompanied with inquiries about each other's lives. Soon, the room quiets and both attorneys and community members settle in to participate in a discussion about prospects for the inclusion of affordable housing in a nearby re–development zone. Afterwards, all will enjoy the communal feast and the attorneys will resume their consultations. This is the monthly meeting of the Queens Housing Coalition and Catholic Migration Services.

The Changing Nature of Immigrant Life

For over forty years, Catholic Migration Services (CMS) has welcomed newcomers to the United States through a range of legal, educational and social services regardless of religion, national origin or immigration status. Our staff of attorneys and Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) accredited counselors have helped tens of thousands to become U.S. citizens, adjust their immigration status, reunite with family, obtain political asylum and received other forms of critical legal relief.

In the past decade, CMS has sought to respond to the changing nature of immigrant life within its catchment area of Brooklyn and Queens. While these two boroughs of New York City have long been havens for recent arrivals to the U.S., in more recent times our nation's broken immigration system and an influx of new immigrants has led to widespread abuse of undocumented persons. In particular, the incidence of labor violations such as wage theft and unsafe working conditions as well as housing code violations including harassment, unlawful eviction and poor maintenance disproportionately affect recent immigrants for whom lawful status is often unobtainable.

As our clients and their families increasingly reported these issues to us, CMS heard the need for our legal staff to provide assistance beyond our traditional area of immigration legal services. In 2005, we created the Immigrant Tenant Advocacy Program (ITAP) to address substandard housing conditions and related exploitation of low– and moderate–income immigrant tenants. In 2010, we launched the Immigrant Workers' Rights Program (IWRP) to combat wage theft and other abuses of low–wage immigrant workers. Funding from the Interest on Lawyers' Accounts (IOLA) grant program has helped to make these programs possible, providing us with critical support to maintain our staff of dedicated attorneys and legal assistants.

At CMS, we seek to make the greatest use of our IOLA and other funding through innovative approaches to the provision of non–profit legal services. One clear example of this effort is our involvement in the monthly meetings of the Queens Housing Coalition, a grass roots entity comprised of seven community–based non–profit organizations, including CMS, and hundreds of individual community members drawn from the overwhelmingly immigrant populated neighborhoods of Queens, NY.

ITAP and the Queens Housing Coalition

Photo Credit: Queens Housing Coalition

The origins of the coalition date back to 2005 when CMS first began working in the area of housing legal assistance through its newly created ITAP. Finding that many low–income immigrant tenants suffered from common issues such as landlord's failure to maintain apartments in habitable condition, ITAP's founding attorney sought to maximize the program's limited resources by organizing groups of tenants to bring affirmative code enforcement actions in housing court.

Soon, these plaintiff groups were connected with each other and other community–based organizations in large–scale campaigns to combat the illegal business practices of some of the most notorious multi–family property owners in the city. After several successful such efforts, CMS spearheaded the process of formalizing collaboration among tenants and the various community organizations sharing a common goal of preserving and developing safe, clean and affordable housing. The resulting Queens Housing Coalition has, since 2010, functioned not only to carry out additional campaigns but also to more effectively connect those in need to critical legal services.

Empowering the Community

Photo Credit: Queens Housing Coalition

This model of legal services provision brings many advantages. In contrast to some more traditional modes of poverty lawyering, the CMS–ITAP approach facilitates client engagement in problem solving and empowerment of community members. Rather than leading our clients to take a passive role in the process, we encourage them to join with others who share their grievances and work collectively to address them.

Although legal representation is often essential to the fulfillment of our clients' needs, we believe that long–term solutions to their housing issues come not from litigation but from empowerment of the community. By moving the point of access for our legal services from our office building to the monthly community meeting, we find that our clients are more likely to participate in the Queens Housing Coalition and thereby to become better aware of their rights and equipped to exercise them.

Addressing Systematic Patterns Affecting the Poor

Photo Credit: Queens Housing Coalition

The robust connection between our legal staff and the community also helps us to more readily identify and address systematic patterns of legal violations affecting poor people. This allows us to focus our resources, including IOLA funding, in a strategic manner that has a greater and more lasting impact. Since 2005, ITAP has won several major legal victories through representation of large plaintiff groups, in some cases receiving precedent–setting trial and appellate court decisions. Over time, we see the real benefits of these community building efforts as our relationship with former clients and community members continues and our coalition grows in numbers and power.

In 2008, CMS–ITAP and its co–counsel pioneered the use of a recently enacted anti–harassment law, the New York City Tenant Protection Act, in litigation brought by dozens of immigrant families who were targeted by a common landlord engaged in systematic displacement of tenants from their rental homes on specious grounds. Currently, we are representing another large group of immigrant tenants who regularly attend the monthly Queens Housing Coalition meetings. In the course of their interactions with ITAP attorneys, it was discovered that their landlord is illegally overcharging them, in some cases threatening to displace elderly tenants at risk of homelessness.

The Human Connection

Finally, another distinct appeal of this lawyering structure is immediately apparent to any observer of the monthly gathering in the Woodside parish hall. A warm, human connection between attorneys and their client is palpable. Although, as in any attorney–client relationship, there may be strains and challenges, the lasting value of the bond formed through communal efforts is critical sustenance for public interest lawyers who work long hours with little pecuniary compensation. Thus, using our resources in this fashion strengthens both our clients and ourselves to carry on the fight for justice.

Robert McCreanor is the director of legal services at CMS, where he oversees the organization's immigration, housing, and employment legal services programs. He joined CMS in 2005, when he founded the Immigrant Tenant Advocacy Program. He is also an adjunct professor of clinical law at St. John's University.