Building Capacity, Strengthening Partnerships

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Building Capacity, Strengthening Partnerships

A core tenet of Immigrant Justice Corps’ mission is mobilizing quality counsel to immigrant communities that need it most. IJC Fellows increase the capacity of their host organizations across the country - creating opportunities for new and innovative counsel in chronically underserved areas. One of those regions is the Lower Hudson Valley.

Just outside the reach of New York City’s dynamic network of resources, the Lower Hudson Valley has long suffered from a lack of legal services for immigrants. Catholic Charities Community Services (CCCS) had a vision to change that but they lacked the staffing. Starting with their first class of Justice Fellows in 2015, they have used the IJC Fellowship program to dramatically change the landscape of legal services in the Lower Hudson Valley’s seven counties.

Justice Fellows L-R John Travis, Cecilia Lopez, CCCS’ Maryann Tharappel, Luis Rodriguez, Sarah Burpee

Justice Fellows L-R John Travis, Cecilia Lopez, CCCS’ Maryann Tharappel, Luis Rodriguez, Sarah Burpee

Maryann Tharappel, Special Projects Director, Immigrant & Refugee Services at Catholic Charities spoke to IJC about the evolution of CCCS’ Lower Hudson Valley project. Before IJC Fellows came on board, she said Catholic Charities had staff consulting in the Valley, but their capacity to do complex immigration representation was almost zero. “We were operating on an emergency ad hoc basis and without dedicated funding.”

With the addition of their first Justice Fellows, Victor Cueva and John Travis, everything changed. “Our goal for the first year was to become the legal face for the region. We learned a lot in that first year. Each county is so different, especially their willingness to work with advocates,” said Maryann.

A few local partners had the trust of the immigrant community but legal services were often outside that trust circle. She said they learned how fraud was a significant issue in the area, with deceitful notarios taking advantage of immigrants’ vulnerability. 

One of the project’s biggest accomplishments has been educating the community about these predatory practitioners and giving community members the tools they need to recognize a scam. The Justice Fellows have changed the way immigrants stand on their own in these communities. Where preying on the vulnerability of the immigrant community was once common, IJC Fellows have created empowerment. “Now, if a red flag is raised, we hear that they know better because of the advocacy of Catholic Charities and because of Victor Cueva, Cecilia Lopez, and John Travis.”

Investing in the future

IJC Fellows at Catholic Charities provide services directly throughout the Lower Hudson Valley, rotating through regional centers providing intakes as well as staffing the Community Legal Clinics, and each provide over 200 consultations a year. 

The IJC Fellowship may be two years, but Maryann and her team are investing in IJC Fellows for the long haul. Maryann gives each Fellow creativity and space to grow and create a program that closes a gap in the communities they serve. In order to develop this nuanced programming Maryann said mentorship and supervision, “are not something that’s aspirational, it’s required.”

A CCCS Community Legal Clinic

A CCCS Community Legal Clinic

“We want them to feel so invested and that they’ve created something so important, that they want to build further and watch it grow. I simply give them the space and support to do it,” Maryann said. One hundred percent of Catholic Charities Justice Fellow alum have stayed in the non-profit immigration legal services field, and 60% continue to serve the Lower Hudson Valley.

Now, four years after joining Catholic Charities as a Justice Fellow, John Travis leads the organization’s Community Legal Clinic Project. “It’s the shining jewel in our Lower Hudson Valley legal services crown,” said Maryann.

Victor Cueva is now a pro bono supervising attorney and regional expert leading efforts for the Kingston community. Victor’s goal, “is to provide for his local community and he is truly, deeply dedicated. He’s taking advocacy in that area to the next level,” said Maryann.

The IJC cohort at Catholic Charities has grown to also include second year Justice Fellow Alejandra Aramayo, Class of 2017 Justice Fellow Sarah Burpee who just transitioned to a permanent staff attorney position, and the newest addition, Class of 2019 Justice Fellow Lesly Santos.

Every single one is blazing their own path in new areas of the Lower Hudson Valley, expanding access to justice, increasing representation, and empowering a community that had been left behind.

Justice Fellow John Travis in a consultation

Justice Fellow John Travis in a consultation

The Fellows maintain a 100% Lower Hudson Valley immigrant resident caseload of over 75% removal defense representation for asylum, VAWA in removal, and special immigrant juvenile status (SIJS) cases, focusing on unaccompanied children as well as recently arrived families. They also maintain an affirmative complex caseload of U/T visas, affirmative asylum, provisional waivers, and SIJS. 

Since bringing on IJC Fellows in 2015 Catholic Charities has also been able to take on detention cases for children and adults and has seen success in every single family court in all seven counties of the Lower Hudson Valley.

The Fellows are receptive to the needs of the communities they serve and operate a responsive model, pivoting resources and relying on expertise within their team to meet the demands of this challenging landscape.

Stronger together

“Our Fellows wear working in the Lower Hudson Valley like a badge of honor, and they’re proud of what they’ve created and the relationships they've built there.”

According to Maryann, the Fellows’ investment is an embodiment of what the IJC partnership was striving for. And there’s no slowing down. “It’s working. It’s working in Ulster and Westchester, and we are excited to build it out further in Orange and Rockland Counties.”

It works both ways. By investing so much in a Fellow, the community then relies on the quality service. Maryann has used that energy and investment to help build a case for support and attract new funders to the region-based programming. “It’s what IJC was meant to do. It’s investment in the initial phase of creating a legal advocate.”

After four years as an IJC host organization, former IJC Fellows are now supervising the new class of Fellows. It has come full circle. “That level of connectivity really cannot be replicated,” she said.

IJC’s partnership with Catholic Charities proves just how transformational the Fellowship model can be. IJC is committed to reaching as many underserved areas as possible until universal representation is a reality.

Looking ahead, Maryann’s biggest hope is to create regional cohorts across all seven counties of the Lower Hudson Valley and beyond. “It’s a testament to what the Fellows are creating. We give them the foundation and support but it’s their growth and effort.”