November 20, 2017 Articles

Partnerships Between Community-Based Organizations Are Integral to Serving Immigrant Populations

By Lydia Gottesfeld, Seth Lyons, and Chi-Ser Tran

Ms. Alvarez* came into Congreso de Latinos Unidos—a community-based organization in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood—for a monthly breast-feeding class made up of mostly Spanish-speaking mothers. Chatting with the class instructor, she mentioned that she hadn't been paid for her last week of work at a job she'd recently left. Her instructor referred her to Community Legal Services (CLS) attorney, Seth Lyons, who works onsite at Congreso once a week as part of a collaboration between the two organizations.

Without this collaborative partnership, Ms. Alvarez—an undocumented immigrant who only speaks Spanish—would not have known where to turn for her wage theft claim, but Seth was able to represent her and direct her to legal resources for immigration, utilities, and tax issues as well.

CLS's project at Congreso focuses on two issues that lead to economic instability and disproportionately affect the Latino community in Philadelphia: wage theft and criminal records as barriers to employment. Latinos are more likely to have a criminal record and more likely to be denied a job because of that record than a white applicant with the same criminal background. Latino immigrants are also more likely to be victims of wage theft, often because employers assume they won't enforce their rights. By strengthening CLS's physical presence in this community, Seth is able to address these issues and also connect Congreso clients to legal services for other problems—such as public benefits, immigration, and family law issues.

Despite limited resources and an already overwhelming need for its services, CLS continues to invest in collaborative projects like the partnership with Congreso in an ongoing effort to reach Philadelphia's underserved immigrant communities.

These communities often face unique obstacles to accessing legal services, including language barriers, geographic and social isolation, and simply not knowing what services and legal rights exist. Perhaps most importantly, many immigrants (both undocumented and documented) are hesitant to enforce their legal rights for fear of deportation—a problem that has been exacerbated by the recent increase in anti-immigrant rhetoric. Given these barriers, partnerships with community-based organizations are integral in connecting with immigrant communities.

CLS has historically maintained offices in neighborhoods across the city, although funding cuts have forced CLS down to two offices: one in Center City and one in North Philadelphia. CLS has also been engaged in many community partnerships, providing legal intake and trainings in where our clients live.

In order to increase our presence in underserved neighborhoods, CLS partnered with the Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC) in 2014 to establish a Medical-Legal Partnership (MLP) at Rising Sun Health Center in the Olney section of Philadelphia. The MLP model of service delivery embeds legal service providers inside health care systems, enabling both medical providers and attorneys to provide more holistic and better care for patients and ultimately improve health care outcomes. CLS attorney Lydia Gottesfeld works onsite at Rising Sun three days per week, meeting with patients about a multitude of legal issues.

When determining whether to establish an MLP, CLS prioritized working with a community health center to reach a community that was not already coming through CLS's doors. Rising Sun was a great fit because it serves a diverse immigrant community in Olney. Patients speak over 40 languages and include immigrants from South and Central America, Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia.

Through the MLP, medical providers have been trained to screen for and spot legal issues as part of the medical care they provide. As a result, patients are often referred to the lawyer before their legal problem has become a crisis. Many times patients are not aware of their legal rights or the availability of a free lawyer who could help them. 

Limited information has a particular impact on Asian Americans, who often go underserved. Contrary to the model minority myth, which is the perceived notion that Asian Americans are generally socioeconomically successful, more than 1 in 4 Asian Americans in Philadelphia live in poverty. Language barriers compound the lack of knowledge about legal rights and where to seek services. 61 percent of Chinese Americans and 58 percent of Vietnamese Americans in Philadelphia are Limited English Proficient (LEP). The fast growth of the Asian American population in Philadelphia, along with the high rates of poverty and language barriers, warranted a strong response from CLS.

To help this diverse community, CLS attorney Chi-Ser Tran has been hosting free legal clinics several times a month in South Philadelphia with Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition (SEAMAAC) and in Chinatown with Asian Arts Initiative.

On a recent sunny afternoon at SEAMACC, Chi-Ser spoke with an audience of LEP Bhutanese refugees about workers' rights, through the help of a Nepali-speaking outreach worker. The attendees learned about wages, health and safety, Philadelphia's earned sick leave law, discrimination, human trafficking signs, anti-retaliation protections, and worker organizing. Several attendees whispered to each other that this was the first time they were learning about some of the topics and that they looked forward to telling a relative or friend. The presentation was part of Chi-Ser's continual outreach to low-wage and LEP Asian immigrant workers, a population often overlooked and underserved.

By embedding legal services where immigrants live and work—and co-locating those services at organizations that have built up trust over many years—CLS seeks to foster relationships with immigrant communities in a way that reaches beyond the impact of a single onsite attorney. Meeting people in their communities helps lessen the inherent power imbalance between attorney and client, which leads to more trusting relationships and, ultimately, better results. In turn, each client served helps bridge the justice gap for marginalized sections of the city, as a greater understanding of legal rights spreads through word of mouth. In the future, CLS would like to secure funding to continue these collaborations, and find even more innovative ways to reach underserved immigrant communities.


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