My summer was spent working with immigrant and refugee victims of domestic violence with Tapestri, Inc. Tapestri has a long history with the Shepherd Consortium. My internship differed from previous interns because my supervisor became a BIA Accredited Representative. A BIA Accredited Representative allows organizations helping immigrants to practice immigration law without passing the bar and becoming an attorney. This means that she can help our clients apply for immigration instead of having to refer them to an attorney. Instead of referring clients to pro-bono lawyers, counseling, and other services, we worked work directly with the clients to apply for their VAWA’s (Violence Against Women Act) or U-Visa’s (VAWA is for battered women who are or were married to Legal Permanent Residents or US Citizens and a U-Visa is for persons who have been victims or witnessed a serious crime in the United States and were helpful in the police investigation).
My first day of work was vastly different from interns before me. While many of them got to jump right in and begin visiting clients, I needed to spend about three days learning about the different types of immigration relief, Protective Orders, and culturally competent ways to work with clients. By the end of the first week I was competent in the different immigration reliefs, protective orders, and had reviewed culturally competent ways to work with clients. It was at the end of my first week working at Tapestri when I was able to meet with my first client. (I know about other Tapestri interns from reading their essays on the SHECP website).
My supervisor assigned me one specific type of immigration relief, VAWA. The majority of the clients I worked with were married to either US Citizens or Legal Permanent Residents (green card holders). Many of them had children and few had a way to bring in income. Applying for immigration relief exposes a major flaw in USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services). A VAWA takes a year or more to process, and during that time applicants do not receive a work permit or any paperwork showing immigration status. This means that they cannot work legally in the United States nor show proper documentation. One of my clients needed to get her drivers license renewed, but the State of Georgia recently passed a law stipulating that a person has to show legal status to receive a driver’s license. This was not the case earlier; persons needed only to show a passport and social security card. For this client, not having a driver’s license meant it was difficult for her to go to the store or take her children to the store, park, or museum. Her children were stuck at home for the majority of the summer because of the difficulty using public transportation with multiple children.
During my last week, I began to work more with U-Visa’s (the other type of immigration relief for our clients). I was reviewing U-Visa’s so I could give my client information, and I noticed for this type of relief it took more than a year—usually two or three years—to process and be approved or denied. However, after being processed, clients could receive a work permit and paperwork showing a legal status. Receiving a work permit and paperwork showing legal status usually took six months to a year.
After filling out the paperwork for multiple VAWA’s, reading about U-Visa’s, and having to call USCIS many times, I learned USCIS was difficult to work with and a problem for many immigrants applying for legal status. The paperwork was not user friendly, the telephone system was complicated, and it was extremely difficult for me or my clients to talks interactively to a live person.
It’s not surprising that such a large organization like USCIS has many problems. It’s difficult to run such a large organization. What about local organizations though? I was pleasantly surprised when working with local organizations. Most everyone I spoke to was friendly and helpful. During my time at Tapestri, I called multiple shelters and, with the exception of one, all of the people I spoke to were friendly, helpful, and many were willing to help in any way possible. I also worked with some lawyers. Specifically, I worked closely with one lawyer for a TPO Hearing (a TPO Hearing is a court hearing which can extend the protective order for a year or more) who was kind, understanding, and included me in everything during the hearing and negotiation process. I also worked closely with a shelter for the same client. Every time I called the shelter to speak with my client, persons were helpful and friendly. Admittedly, it sometimes took a long time to give the client a message.
I had no idea what to expect prior to working at my internship. I wasn’t quite sure what I would be doing. I didn’t know how closely I would interact with clients. I didn’t know if I would work with anyone in the community. I was amazed by the extent of client interaction. I couldn’t believe my supervisor just let me go meet a client to review paperwork during my second week working at Tapestri. I never thought I would have been filling out immigration paperwork on an almost daily basis. I learned quickly that USCIS is not a user-friendly organization, but the local Atlanta organizations and services were usually happy to help. The USCIS could make changes to better help local organizations like Tapestri by hiring more employees so callers can more easily speak to a person and by making sure the employees at the USCIS have a more extensive knowledge of immigration. As for the USCIS paperwork, I don’t think there is a way to make the paperwork easier, but maybe the USCIS can provide more instructions or have the option to call and speak to a BIA Accredited Representative or an immigration lawyer.