Justice For Our Neighbors 4/30/15 04/29/15 11:54:03 PM
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Justice For Our Neighbors
Non-Profit Organization Honored by Bar
For Legal Work With Needy Immigrants
By Elizabeth Elliott
The Daily Record
The Magna Carta, upon which the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights are based, asserted that no one is above the law but, for those without access to legal counsel, the legal protections do not mean very much.
The staff at Justice For Our Neighbors – Nebraska (JFON-NE) work with immigrants to help them find protection. Legal Director Charles “Shane” Ellison said access to counsel is one of the most significant challenges that immigrants face.
“Because immigration removal proceedings are considered civil in nature – even when individuals are detained and facing deportation to a country where their life or freedoms are at grave risk – counsel is not appointed for those financially unable to retain private counsel. They must represent themselves against highly-trained government attorneys,” Ellison said.
This lack of access to counsel makes a difference. He explained: “several studies have shown that individuals in removal proceedings are three-to-five times more likely to prevail in their cases if they are represented by an attorney.”
Last year, JFON-NE provided free legal counsel to low-income individuals from 38 different counties in more than 1,600 cases.
Today, as the Omaha Bar Association celebrates Law Day, the organization will receive the 2015 Public Service Award. Ellison said JFON-NE is honored to receive the award.
“Our organization has worked hard to efficiently, effectively and innovatively increase our capacity to serve the legal needs of low-income immigrants. The unmet need for pro bono legal services is enormous. However, due to our strategic focus and targeted efforts to ensure the greatest impact, we have been able to dramatically increase access to free immigration legal counsel,” he said. “In 2010, we worked approximately 250 cases. Last year, we were able to increase that figure to over 1,600 cases.
“To have our accomplishments recognized is a privilege,” added Ellison. “We are delighted to have achieved such progress, but we cannot relent, as we know there are still unmet needs in our community.”
In addition to the increased number of cases JFON-NE works, they have experienced growth in their office.
“In 2011, we were a staff of four full-time employees. We have now grown to fifteen full time employees and one part-time employee,” said Ellison. “This increase in capacity has enabled us to meet the needs of many additional individuals who require immigration legal services.
“The need for immigration legal services continues to outpace the resources of nonprofit legal services providers to meet that need,” said Ellison. “And, with the frequent changes in immigration law through Board of Immigration Appeals decisions, regulatory modifications and the creation of new administrative programs such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the need for cutting-edge, high-quality immigration legal services continues to grow.”
Collaboration with others has helped JFON-NE maximize the number of people they can assist, according to Ellison.
“We provide weekly consultations at the Latino Center of the Midlands, Heartland Family Service, Completely KIDS and Centro Latino of Council Bluffs, in addition to monthly consultations at the Siena/Francis House,” he said. “We have likewise increased our efforts to provide legal services in the rural communities of Lexington, Grand Island, Crete and South Sioux City.
“Additionally, we collaborate with Legal Aid of Nebraska, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Family Services, Women’s Center for Advancement and the Center for Legal Immigration Assistance through our unique centralized intake system, the Nebraska Immigration Legal Assistance Hotline (NILAH),” he said.
Executive Director Emiliano Lerda said, “It is an honor for our organization to receive the 2015 Omaha Bar Association Public Service Award. We are infinitely grateful for all the support we receive on an ongoing basis from our colleagues in the private bar. For many of our clients, access to counsel can mean the difference between life and death. It is working in partnership with the private bar that allows our organization to better meet the need for pro bono immigration legal services for the most vulnerable among us.”
People like client Mario Mazariegos Hernandez know the crucial role JFON-NE can play in immigrants’ lives. “My wife and I are very happy to have heard about Justice For Our Neighbors,” he wrote to the organization. “We feel very happy that JFON accepted our case. May God bless you. JFON has helped us so much. If it wasn’t for all your work and help, my wife and I might have been sent back to Guatemala. I hope that JFON continues to grow and help many others.”
While Ellison has seen some improvement in immigration law and policy in the past few years, he said that unless Congress acts, it wouldn’t change the fact that the current immigration system is broken. “For the approximately 11 million undocumented individuals in the U.S., there is simply no ‘line’ to get into; and for those who do have a line, their wait can last for many decades,” he said. “It is not right to break families apart; the laws need to be changed.”
That’s why in addition to legal services, JFON-NE also provides education on the current state of the immigration system and engages in advocacy to seek improvements in the law.
“This includes our efforts to support positive local legislation, such as LB 623 which would get Nebraska in line with the other 49 states in the U.S. that issue drivers’ licenses to individuals granted deferred action under DACA. It also includes our decision to take on high-impact litigation cases that have the ability to establish positive precedent that advance the rights and protections of immigrants within the U.S.”
Athena Ramos, co-chair of the JFON-NE board of directors, noted that “Justice for Our Neighbors – Nebraska is an extremely important organization for our community, and the services that JFON-NE provides to immigrants is invaluable. I am proud to be part of an organization that truly changes the course of people’s lives. We are humbled to receive the Omaha Bar Association’s Public Service Award. This award speaks volumes to the hard work and dedication of our remarkable staff. On behalf of the board, we thank the Bar for this recognition.”
JFON-NE not only impacts the lives of its clients, it has a profound impact on its staff as well.
Ellison said he went to law school because he wanted to make a positive impact in people’s lives.
“While I was not sure what job would allow me to fulfill that dream, through the process of studying immigration law, I began to realize that this was an area of law where there was a tremendous need for pro bono services and where I could make a difference,” he said.
“What I love most about my job is being able to see how our services radically affect the trajectory of our client’s lives, who go on to do wonderful things. We have helped victims of domestic violence and human trafficking to start new lives. We have helped refugees and asylees obtain protection from torture and persecution. And we have helped families stay together.”
For more information about the services JFON-NE provides you can reach them at (855) 964-2542 for consultations and (402) 898-1349 for questions. Their office is at 2414 E Street in Omaha.