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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Just Neighbors offers a life line to local immigrants

A green card.
Like many undocumented residents of the Annandale/Mason area, Alejandro didn’t see much of a future for himself after he graduated from Annandale High School.

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.


  1. Nice to hear about such wonderful organizations helping our neighbors.

  2. " For that reason, Just Neighbors won’t help asylees attain citizenship until everyone in the family gets a green card."

    This statement reflect the reason Donald Trump's views on immigration have received such a positive reception. You'll never convince me that anyone who illegally resides in this country should ever be granted permanent residence much less citizenship. This is a nation of laws and no one should be rewarded for circumventing them.

    1. Referring to your post below and the updated quote...I can somewhat sympathize with you, but I don't see how it's the fault of the kid. His parents broke the law, and they should (arguably) be punished, but as a minor he had no choice in the matter. I guess you could go ahead and punish him too, but it doesn't seem as black and white as the situation with his parents who consciously made the decision. Probably a sweeping generalization, but the examples cited in the article all seem to be value added members of the community. They work, they contribute, they're making a better life. These aren't the guys you want to send back. Sure, how they got here legally is questionable, but they aren't the ones draining the "system." It's a tough call, stuff like this always is.

    2. In this instance, DACA is permitting a child to benefit from the illegal behavior of his parents. It makes sense for an adult to overstay a visa if that criminal conduct offers an opportunity for the offender's child to remain in the U.S. The incentive can be removed if the offenders are promptly deported. However, that doesn't seem to be happening with sufficient regularity. DACA encourages illegal behavior by presuming on the goodwill of the U.S. government. So, it's time to repeal it and begin vigorously deporting those criminals who are exploiting it to their advantage.

    3. Um... you do understand that Just Neighbors uses the immigration laws to get people green cards? they don't just print the green cards themselves? So I don't see how, by helping someone get a green card THROUGH THE LAW, they are rewarding law-breaking...

    4. There's nothing in my comment critical of Just Neighbors. To restate my previous point, DACA may be the law, but its a bad law if it permits children to benefit from the illegal behavior of their parents. There's simply no reason for this country to permit aliens to reside here indefinitely after their visas expire.

    5. I won't say they are draining the system, but they are using it, for sure. These are not immigrants of yore who are homesteading off of cheaply bought government land, or living in squalor in tenements because there are no protections against such; they are (for a large part) in livable homes, and are provided a modern education and healthcare, which we are all on the hook for. A child that requires ESOL and a litany of services provided by FCPS costs about $20,000 per year.

      Being a nice, upstanding person is just one part of the equation.

    6. Educating the children of self-supporting legal immigrants has been a feature of American life for generations. The problem began in 1982 when the Supreme Court ruled that undocumented aliens have the same right to attend public schools as citizens and documented aliens. Although the school don't have an obligation to enforce the immigration laws, these students wouldn't be here if the federal government lived up to its responsibilities and deported them. That may seem harsh, but there are millions of people currently attempting to legally enter the U.S. So, it's blatantly unfair to them and us to allow illegal immigrants to jump the line.

  3. Correction: I quoted the wrong section of this article. The proper excerpt is as follows: "Alejandro’s parents brought him to the U.S. from Argentina...They came here legally but overstayed their visa and became undocumented."

  4. Look who gave Penny Gross $7k, yes the same address of this place

    5827 Columbia Pike

  5. Just Neighbors is a nonprofit and one of many tenants in an office building at 5827 Columbia Pike. And, yes, the organization is looking to move because that building is slated to be torn down and replaced with multifamily housing. The office building is owned by a company set up by John Thillman. "5827 Columbia Pike" contributed $7,000 to Penny Gross over several years, the last time in 2013. Thillman, the co-chair of the Seven Corners Task Force, contributed $500 to Gross's current re-election campaign.

    All that, however, has nothing to do with Just Neighbors, which is merely a tenant in the building.

    1. Is that Ellie Ashford, campaign manager for Mollie Loeffler, or Ellie Ashford, editor of the Annandale Blog? I always mix those two up!

    2. I'm not working on anyone's campaigns.

    3. I admire your patience Ellie

    4. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    5. Hey, I just think it's cool someone's writing about my neighborhood. There's a lot of opinions....all over the place, but that's a good thing. Show's people care. I don't know or care if you have an agenda, and I don't think it even matters. I'm just glad someone thinks enough about A-dale to put forth the effort, so thanks.

    6. Anon 5:45 - Penny is that you ? You memory is fading isn't it. Perhaps you should retire.

    7. I think 5:45 is a bully. They are scared Penny will lose and are trying to bully the person writing this blog. DON'T BE BULLIED.