When local immigrants need legal help, Just Neighbors provides a lifeline. The nonprofit organization based in Bailey’s Crossroads was established 15 years ago “in response to the lack of immigrant legal services for the community,” says Executive Director Rob Rutland-Brown.
Just Neighbors helps people apply for green cards and other documents they need to stay and work in the United States, assists refugees from war zones seeking asylum, and helps families stay together. In some cases, people just need assistance figuring which forms they need to submit and how to fill them out. Other cases are more complicated.
Victims of and witnesses to violent crimes are eligible to stay in the United States if they cooperate with the police, and Just Neighbors helps people in these situations negotiate this process.
That’s what happened with Edgar, an immigrant from Honduras who lives in Annandale, who was badly injured when he tried to break up a fight at a friend’s house. He agreed to work with the police, and the man who stabbed him is still in jail.
Just Neighbors “helped me with everything,” he says. “They told me what I needed to do” to get visas for himself, his wife, and children.
Edgar, his wife, and eldest daughter had come to the United States 14 years ago to escape the poverty and crime in Honduras, which has the world’s highest murder rate. They now have four children, ages 6 to 19, and he works in maintenance at an Arlington apartment complex.
“I appreciate this country,” says Edgar, who still has family in Honduras and says, “every day I pray to God to protect them.” In two more years, he will be eligible for a green card and in five years he’ll be able to apply for citizenship.
Just Neighbors takes on about 800 cases a year. The organization has three attorneys on staff and another 200 chip in on a voluntary basis.
While Just Neighbors only deals with legal issues, it does have a social work intern on staff to help clients connect with other organizations that can help with housing or other services. It also hosts a counselor once a week from the nonprofit Women’s Center in Vienna.
Just Neighbors was founded as a ministry of the Arlington District of the United Methodist Church, but the program does not have any religious components and “is open to people of all faiths and backgrounds,” says Rutland-Brown.
Clients come from about 115 countries, with the largest numbers from El Salvador, Bolivia, Honduras, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.
Just Neighbors has helped many immigrants from El Salvador obtain “temporary protective status,” which is available to people who came here after a hurricane ravaged the country in 2001, Rutland-Brown notes. They are allowed to stay, regardless of their legal status, because the United States declared it dangerous for them to return to El Salvador, but they must renew their status every 18 months.
About a third of Just Neighbors’ funding comes from federal, state or county funds; another third is from private foundations; and the remainder comes from donations. Only 2 percent is from client fees. Clients pay a one-time fee of $50 but the fee is often waived for people who can’t afford it.
The need for services is growing, while governments are cutting their budgets and the recession has put a damper on donations. Just Neighbors receives about 150 calls a month—more than double it received just two years ago—and can only take on about 25 percent of those requesting aid, says Rutland-Brown.
Those whom the organization can’t help are often referred to other organizations, such the Tahirih Justice Center, which helps immigrant women escape abusive relationships, or the Legal Aid Justice Center, which helps day laborers resolve disputes with contractors.
Rutland-Brown has seen some fallout from the anti-immigration policies adopted in Prince William County. Clients seeking help at Just Neighbors’ satellite office in Woodbridge “are more fearful of going to the police for help,” he says. The group also has an office in Herndon.
“We’re helping people take advantage of existing law, not skirt the law,” he says. Some clients had paid hundreds of dollars to unscrupulous lawyers who promised things they weren’t eligible for. In contrast, Just Neighbors’ attorneys tell potential clients upfront whether they can help or not.
Helping people obtain legal status “prevents them from living underground,” he says, and it’s rewarding to see clients’ relief when “they see someone is here to help them.” He believes living in a community with people from different cultural backgrounds and experiences enriches everyone’s lives.
“People who work here enjoy meeting people from other cultures,” he says, noting that one volunteer’s first client was a woman from the Congo who brought eight children to her appointment. She was seeking help to bring her mother to the U.S. to help with child care. That session was a bit chaotic, but they eventually bonded and the volunteer give Christmas presents to all the kids.
“Working here you really get to know people—what kind of journeys they’ve taken to get here, what they’ve given up, and what sacrifices they’ve made,” Rutland-Brown says. “We’re all motivated and inspired by that interaction.”