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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Alachua County legal experts educate migrants on workings of immigration system

Law firms, nonprofit organizations provide legal advice to immigrants who need it

The exterior of dePaz Cabrera Immigration Law pictured on Sunday, March 3, 2024.
The exterior of dePaz Cabrera Immigration Law pictured on Sunday, March 3, 2024.

Many difficulties come with immigration legal processes, even more so when an immigrant's first language is not English. This especially rings true for Latino and Hispanic migrants, who comprise around 12% of the total population in Gainesville, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2023

Veronica Robleto is the 43-year-old program director of the Human Rights Coalition of Alachua County, a nonprofit organization that, among other services, offers legal advice to immigrants.

“I can provide an orientation on what to expect,” Robleto said. “What their rights are within the criminal legal system, the civil legal system and immigration legal system.”

It is important to receive representation from an attorney or legal adviser because of how complex the processes tend to be, she said.

Robleto referred to the term ‘notario fraud,’ which is used for people who pretend to be a legal representative for profit.

“That's very dangerous,” Robleto said. “Because even if they might be able to successfully complete an application, it’s risky because they can mess up their case.”

Porter Horne is the director of Immigrant Hope, a nonprofit organization that provides immigrants assistance with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Its primary goal is to provide help to immigrants to submit forms such as temporary protective status, delayed DACA, green cards, work permits and around 200 different forms for citizenship.

“It’s a daunting task,” Horne said. “About 60 years ago, the U.S. government admitted that it's more than you could expect immigrants to be able to handle on their own.” 

The job is even harder when English is not their first language, Horne said.

“It's something for which you can hire an immigration lawyer,” Horne said. “And I never discourage people from doing that. But the cost to get the assistance of an immigration lawyer to file forms is measured in thousands of dollars. The cost to have Immigrant Hope Gainesville assist you with preparing a form and submitting it to USCIS is in the hundreds of dollars.”

Immigration Hope also provides translation services, though Horne said that, sadly, they’re not able to help with every language.

“I have about eight or nine people who were available to help me with translation,” Horne said. “I have Spanish translation help. I have Braille translation help … and also Portuguese because there are a number of people from Brazil that I have assisted.”

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Even when language is not a barrier, there are other challenges that come with filing immigration forms, especially without legal assistance. 

“I think the success rate for people who have assistance from either someone like me, who's the Department of Justice accredited representative or, if they can afford it, an immigration lawyer, have a much higher success rate in having their forms approved,” Horne said. 

One of the ways Horne can assist clients is by helping them create and manage USCIS accounts, which follows up on their immigration status and tells them how to proceed with their documentation.

“That not only makes it possible for some of the forms to be submitted electronically, it gives them a lot more feedback from USCIS about what's going on with their process than you can get if you don't have an online account,” Horne said. 

While Immigration Hope is a nonprofit organization, it has fees based on household income for the immigration services they provide. In addition, clients will need to pay the fees that go to USCIS, Horne said.

“If the household income is at or less than 150% of the U.S. federal poverty level, then we charge half as much as we do for clients whose income is above that amount,” Horne said. “And we do have some limited funds available to help people who truly can't pay for our services and who also have a hard time paying for the USCIS fees.”

Those who can afford an immigration lawyer may find themselves with someone like Laura dePaz Cabrera, a 41-year-old Puerto Rican immigration lawyer who saw a need in her community and sought to provide help for those needing legal representation.

“The stakes are too high to mess it up,” dePaz Cabrera said. “Unfortunately, the system isn't designed to be user friendly.”

Immigration law policies and regulations change constantly, dePaz Cabrera said. She described how people would come to her office after trying to do documents on their own, which can make things more difficult.

“Now, the person either has a solution to their situation, or they end up being deported and have to spend years outside of the country before they're able to enter again,” dePaz Cabrera said. 

DePaz Cabrera shared a story about a family of four who got separated when the mother was unable to enter the country after she left for two weeks, even with all her documents approved.

The woman had to apply for a waiver because she entered the country illegally.

“She left behind two U.S. citizen children and her husband,” said dePaz Cabrera. “One of the children had significant medical needs.”

The officer at the U.S. embassy claimed that she didn’t have the appropriate amount of financial support and denied her application, dePaz Cabrera said.

“So even though they agreed with us that she did qualify, they had revoked her waiver application,” dePaz Cabrera said. “She had to reapply for a waiver.”

At the time, before the pandemic, application approval would take around a year. During the coronavirus, the embassy shut down and the wait time doubled. 

She missed out on her kids’ birthdays, their first day of school and all of the holidays, dePaz Cabrera said.

“Her husband had to essentially be a single parent to two children, one with special needs,” dePaz Cabrera said. “All because of a technical error that the embassy committed that ended up costing her an incredible amount of time.”

In 2021, the woman was able to reenter the country and is now a green card holder.

Contact Laura Quintana at lquintana@alligator.org. Follow her on X @LauraCQuintana1.




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Laura Quintana

Laura Quintana is a third year Journalism major. Spring 2024 is her first semester working at The Alligator. Some of the things she likes to do is read, write, and take pictures. Her biggest goal is to become a novelist and travel the world.  


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