|A green card.|
Just Neighbors, an immigrant advocacy organization based in Bailey’s Crossroads, helped him attain status under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows certain people who came to the United States as children seek approval to stay here legally for two years.
Alejandro’s parents brought him to the U.S. from Argentina when he was 5. They came here legally but overstayed their visa and became undocumented. After qualifying for DACA status, he has been able to attend Northern Virginia Community College, get a job, and help his family with rent and household expenses.
Just Neighbors sees about two to four clients a week seeking DACA status for the first time, says Just Neighbors Executive Director Allison Rutland Soulen. They usually come in when they become eligible, at age 15.
Being approved for DACA status allows people to get work permits, apply to college, and get a driver’s license. If they need to travel abroad for work or a family emergency, they would be able to get back into the country.
In another case, Just Neighbors helped Gabriela, whose parents brought her to the United States from Honduras when she was 13, attain DACA status, which enabled her to attend NOVA and get a job with Fairfax County Public Schools.
Another Just Neighbors client seeking DACA status, Javier, had come to the United States from El Salvador when he was 14 and while here graduated from Woodson High School. In a letter he wrote to Just Neighbors thanking the organizations for its help, he said he’d been able to get a job a job as a plumber, get a driver’s license, and “save money for my daughter and give her a better life.”
When DACA took effect in 2012, there was some concern that if people identify themselves as undocumented, there would be negative consequences, such as the possibility of deportation, but that didn’t happen, Soulen says.
The program expires next year, so President Obama would need to extend it in June 2016. “The election could wreak havoc,” Soulen says, if the next president refuses to continue the program.
Most of the people who come to Just Neighbors are seeking help applying for DACA, but the organization also assists people who have had to flee their countries due to persecution. That includes people who’ve come to the United States on their own seeking asylum and refugees who have been registered with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.
The United States government accepts 70,000 refugees each year. They are given assistance with housing, school enrollment, English language skills, and applying for jobs.
It takes time before a refugee crisis reaches the U.S. Since January 2014, for example, only three Syrians seeking asylum sought help from Just Neighbors. Soulen expects to see more turn up the coming months.
After living for a year in the United States, asylees and refugees can apply for a green card, which puts them on the path to apply for citizenship. Just Neighbors helps with green card applications and nearly all clients are eligible for a waiver of the filing fee, which is more than $1,000 for each family member.
Since January 2014, the largest number of asylees, 41, helped by Just Neighbors have been from China, most of them Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic group facing discrimination by the Han Chinese. The organization helped 36 Coptic Christians from Egypt seeking asylum since January 2014, 29 asylees from Ethiopia, and 35 from 16 other countries.
During the same period, Just Neighbors helped 35 refugees from six countries, including 26 from Iraq, obtain green cards. Most DACA clients are from Bolivia, Peru, El Salvador, and Mexico.
The organization also regularly sees victims of violent crimes, including domestic violence, who are eligible to apply for a special visa, known as a U Visa. In some cases, the perpetrator threatens to have the victim deported if she calls the police. After several years people who get these visas can apply for a green card.
Just Neighbors primarily helps adults, rather than unaccompanied minors who escaped to the U.S. There are other local organizations, like the Legal Aid Justice Center in Falls Church, that take on those cases.
Just Neighbors, however, does have as clients several youths who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by their parents – either in the U.S. or abroad – seeking “special immigrant juvenile status.”
In one example, Juan came to Just Neighbors in 2014 a week before his 18th birthday. He had been living in a small town in Guatemala with his parents and three siblings. His father was a heavy drinker and forced the children to spend their days working in the fields. Juan came to the U.S. by himself and was apprehended at the border and spent a month at a juvenile detention center in Texas. He now lives with an aunt in Mason District and attends high school.
In some cases, Just Neighbors helps people who have been overcharged by unscrupulous attorneys or harmed by well-meaning immigrant advocates who were trying to be helpful but don’t understand all the quirks in the immigration law.
For example, Soulen says, an uninformed advocate might not know that if an asylee with a green card becomes a citizen, no one else in that family can get green cards. For that reason, Just Neighbors won’t help asylees attain citizenship until everyone in the family gets a green card.
The organization provides services to people at 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which comes to $48,500 in annual income for a family of four. The most Just Neighbors charges is $100 per case, but waives the fee for people who can’t afford it, which is most of its clients.
Just Neighbors clients are extremely appreciative of the help they’ve gotten, Soulen says. She told of an immigrant from Bolivia living in Annandale who was able to get a green card and work as a house cleaner. Even though she doesn’t owe the organization anything, she contributed $1,700 to Just Neighbors, sending a $25 check every month.
Note: The names of clients in this article have been changed to protect their confidentiality.