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Why is Immigration Legal Services Vital to Resettlement?

Immigration Legal Services (ILS) is an invaluable department in our Fox Valley office. Though their work is vital to the long-term integration of our refugee community, many community members are unaware of how much their work encompasses.

Our Community Engagement Manager, Karen Crisler, sat down with Phil Stoffel, our Immigration Legal Services Manager, to hear a little bit more about what it’s like to work in ILS.

Can you start by sharing what your role is at WR? And what exactly is ILS?

I am the ILS Manager and I am a Department of Justice (DOJ) accredited representative. This means that I am authorized by the DOJ to practice immigration law, within the context of World Relief. Reps are accredited every 3 years.

Our ILS program assist clients with a variety of services such as green cards, permanent residence, family reunification, citizenship, and travel documents. We do charge fees for our services but they are nominal compared to a private attorney, and we take into consideration the circumstances of each of our clients, especially when it comes to our larger families.

We exist to provide competent and affordable immigration services to refugees and immigrants who might not otherwise be able to afford or access legal services.

 How is your work effected by global events?

Day to day, our work is based on our local resettlement numbers. 90% of the refugees we resettle return to our ILS team for help with their green card, citizenship, or other services.

That being said, we try to stay as ready as possible to respond to global events. One of the biggest ways we are doing that is by building up our ILS team. When I started it was just me. Now we have 2 DOJ reps, with a third to be hired soon. We also have an administrative assist and a contract attorney on our team.

A major global event that effected your work was the fall of Kabul in the fall of 2021. What has it been like working with our Afghan arrivals, especially in light of their unique immigration status?

The situation that caused Afghans to flee Kabul has created a lot of chaos.

When Kabul fell, we welcomed roughly 200 Afghan “parolees” in the Fox Valley. About half of those people worked with the U.S. government or military, and therefore qualified for Special Immigrant Visas (SIV), which we helped them apply for. For those with SIV status there is a pathway to a green card, and eventually citizenship.

The other half of parolees that didn’t qualify for SIV status are here lawfully and authorized to work for up to two years, but there is not a legal pathway to citizenship for them. This means that our contract attorney, Molly Smiltneek, and a team of pro-bono attorneys are working to help these parolees apply for “asylum” which is a complex, cumbersome process with no promise of success, but would create a legal pathway is granted. Nothing in immigration is guaranteed.

So unlike refugees, many Afghan parolees don’t have a guarantee at having a permanent status or long term work authorization. And, more significant than that, a large amount of people are separated from their family.

When it comes to Afghan reunification, most reunification is dependent on those here receiving permanent residence cards, and eventually citizenship. Typically, you can only apply for certain family members based on your permanent residency or citizenship, and in normal circumstances the reunification of a husband and wife can take 2-4 years at a minimum; often times longer. In some reunification cases, we get senators involved, and it’s difficult even for them to push cases forward.

About 50% of our program time goes to our Afghan population right now. It’s an opportunity to serve people, but many of these people have suffered. 

What is the hardest part of your role? What is the most rewarding?

They are one and the same. It’s really challenging to have people sitting in front of you, living in the same place as you, but they don’t have the same rights as you. Especially challenging when they are separated from their family members. On some forms I have to ask clients where their parents are living –  and many people don’t know. Many don’t even know if their family members are alive or not.

But the most rewarding part is when the work comes to fruition, and someone gets a green card or citizenship, or we get to see them reunited with their family after years apart.

That is a microcosm of the work we do – its heavy with longing and waiting, and on the other side is the joy of being reunited. Almost a glimpse of heaven in a way.

Can you share a reunification or citizenship story?

I worked with an individual who had to leave his pregnant wife behind when he came to the U.S.

He met with our ILS team when he got here, and we were able to file a petition for his wife and daughter to come join him. Fast forward four years and her case was finally approved. He was able to meet his four-year-old daughter for the first time and be reunited with his wife.

If you could help people understand one things about ILS, what would it be?

Most people who work in the field of ILS have the same goal: to serve the clients. But it’s hard because the government is ultimately in control of the processing. We can do as much as we can to get paper work in and out efficiently, but ultimately the government is in control of the speed. The truth is that there isn’t always pathway, and even if it exists, it takes so long. For example, in 2015 the processing time for a green card took around 8 months. Right now, green cards are taking about 36 months.

 I am encouraged by our team though. We have a great team, a strong team. And, we have great clients. The work is never finished, but I feel like our staff is willing to take on the challenge. Our goal is to serve as many people well, as we can.

We are so grateful for Phil and the work his team accomplishes– the commitment of our ILS department is critical to the long term success of our refugee neighbors.  

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