Ruskin Piedra is the founder and director of the Juan Neumann Center, an organization tied to the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help church, which provides low-cost legal services to immigrants, many of whom are Latino and hail from the surrounding Sunset Park area. Piedra is a busy man. He manages about 3,000 cases, including undocumented immigrants seeking to adjust their status or who are facing deportation or seeking asylum.
Piedra is not an attorney, but he has taken many courses in immigration law and procedure that qualify him to appear in immigration court. In New York, many nonprofits and charitable organizations employ representatives like Piedra who often charge less than an attorney.
“These poor people have no clue and most of them don’t speak English,” Piedra said. “They have no other recourse but to come here. My heart goes out to them.”
But Piedra has another reason why he feels so deeply for his clients – he is a Catholic priest who says he serves the “poor and most abandoned” because he has been called to do so. His faith background helps him gain his clients’ trust, he says.
As the Catholic Church and other Christian houses of worship in New York become increasingly composed of Latino immigrants, more faith workers are being asked for assistance with immigration issues. And while only a handful have credentials like Ruskin to give legal advice, many faith workers say that because clients’ rate of success in immigration court is exponentially higher when they have legal representation, they feel compelled to act as intermediaries between legal service providers and their congregants who desperately need help.
“A lot of people will go to their church to get answers,” especially Latino immigrants who did the same in their home country, said Richard Espinal, the executive director of the Altagracia Center for Faith and Justice, which was formed by Catholic Jesuits to assist Dominican immigrants in the Washington Heights area. “The church for many people has been a sense of sanctuary, a source of stability. New immigrants gravitate toward a parish and consider it their home base.”
Between 1990 and 2008, increased immigration from Latin America accounted for much of the growth in the Catholic Church in the United States. The church grew by 11 million during that time, 9 million of which were Latino, according to a study by Trinity College. Latinos also made up a fast-growing segment of other Christian denominations, such as Protestant sects, in New York.
Though the Catholic Church and other Christian houses of worship have long preached policies that support immigrants—regardless of their legal status—in recent years they’ve become more involved, as more congregants say they are facing immigration issues.
A recent publication by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops advises faith workers to assist undocumented immigrants especially those who have left their home country due to war, natural disaster, famine and poverty—conditions that have long plagued countries in Central and South America and Mexico. An estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants live in New York City.
“The presence of large numbers of people living in the shadows of society without recourse to fundamental legal protections is a grave injustice that the Church seeks to change,” the pamphlet states.
Piedra, a Cuban-American who speaks fluent Spanish, says he founded the Juan Neumann Center so immigrants would have somewhere trustworthy to go for legal help – he’s seen too many clients swindled out of thousands of dollars by notarios, who pose as lawyers and make big promises but rarely fulfill them.
Claudia de la Cruz is a licensed minister of the United Church of Christ—a Protestant sect—and professor of ethnic studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. A Dominican-American, she celebrates mass in Spanish every Sunday at her parish, Iglesia San Romero de las Americas on West 178th Street, where she preaches to about 30 congregants, many of whom are Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican and Ecuadorian immigrants from the surrounding Washington Heights area.
She prides herself in the active nature of her congregants, who have assisted Latino immigrants in the area with housing issues and are planning to teach an English-language class. Though she is not a lawyer, de la Cruz has accompanied people to immigration court more than 30 times.
“There are certain teachings that come from Christianity that we need to be able to embody,” she said. “One of the main ones is having the ability to feel with people, having that compassion. [But] you need to know how far you can go and how much you can assist.”
But the involvement of faith workers in immigration cases is not without complications. Interviews with attorneys at nonprofits that work with or are funded by Catholic and Christian churches revealed that pastors sometimes give legal advice to immigrants, despite their lack of credentials.
Donald Kerwin, vice president for programs at the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute and 16-year veteran of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, said that while it is difficult to estimate how often Christian faith workers give Latino immigrants legal advice without the authority to do so, even if their intentions are well-meaning, the consequences are often dire.
“Immigration cases can get very complicated, very quickly. Some pastors do this [assist in legal cases] because the demand is so overwhelming,” he said. “They mistakenly think they are qualified and that it’s as simple as filling out some paperwork — but they aren’t.”
As demand for services, especially legalization, increases, says Kerwin, instances of well-meaning but improper legal advice will only increase. That’s troublesome to immigrant advocates who say immigrants are already the prey of scammers posing as immigration lawyers and have to navigate a difficult system that does not entitle them to free legal representation.
And having free or low-cost legal representation is essential to many immigrants, who cannot afford private counsel.
“If you have legal representation, the possibility of getting your just day in court increases exponentially,” said Michele Pistone, an expert in immigration law and Catholic social thought at Villanova University School of Law. A report by the American Bar Association found that asylum seekers are up to six times more likely to win their case with representation.
According to government statistics, last year, of the 290,000 immigration cases that were completed, about 40 percent appeared without legal counsel, a figure that was of “great concern” to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the federal department that oversees immigration cases.
As the battle over how to reform immigration law intensifies—especially since the passing of a new law in Arizona—Catholic and Christian faith workers are stepping up their involvement in the debate. Altagracia’s Espinal says while there is still a lot of work to be done in New York to unify local parishes over what needs to change in immigration law, there is a clear increase in interest in the issue.
And if the eventual legislation to change immigration law includes a path to legalization for some immigrants, parishes and faith workers would play a “vital role” in assuring the law was properly executed and immigrants were not victimized by fake lawyers, said Raluca Oncioiu, an attorney and the program director of Catholic Charities’ Department of Immigration Services.