Refugee legal help center set to close


BURLINGTON -- When Ali Adam came to the U.S. from Kenya in 2005, he knew English, found a job within a week and graduated from high school two years later.

But not all foreigners who pass through or settle in Vermont are so fortunate. For 30 years, the Vermont Immigration and Asylum Advocates organization has helped asylum seekers, detainees and other victims of torture and trauma worldwide.

The VIAA, however, plans to close its doors at the end of the year due to financial hardship. A letter sent to donors in June also said staff needed to "correct the balance between their work and other aspects of life," according to a letter sent by Executive Director Michele Jenness and board president Larry Mires.

Adam is from Somalia but escaped a civil war there when he was 10, living for more than eight years in a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya. He interviewed to come to the U.S. in 2000 but was delayed until 2005 because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, he said.

When he arrived in Vermont, VIAA helped Adam apply for citizenship after he was denied. After months of studying for the exam, he passed and became a citizen in June.

Now Adam works with other immigrants, helping them through the legal system and teaching them to fill out paperwork.

"I had an opportunity to go straight to work," he said.

The VIAA helped 741 people from 89 countries, according to executive director Michele Jenness. She has put a plan together so those who need it can find help elsewhere when VIAA closes.

From now until the end of the year, the VIAA will not take any more asylum cases. It will refer new cases to other groups including the South Royalton Legal Clinic at Vermont Law School.

That clinic will oversee a grant the VIAA received from the federal government to work with torture and trauma survivors.

Asylum seekers, like refugees, must prove they fear persecution at home because of race, nationality, political views, religion or social group, Jenness said. But many people flee their home country without the piles of documents needed to prove those circumstances to U.S. officials, she said.

The VIAA also gives legal education to immigrants who are detained in federal detention facilities in Vermont. Detainees are often not afforded public defenders and need help understanding the legal process.

One important step is helping detainees argue their bond hearings, so they can try to get released from prisons. It is much easier to gather documents and prepare to defend yourself in court if you aren't behind bars. The VIAA helped 146 detainees last year, Jenness said.

Bonds are initially set at $10,000 but can be argued down to $1,500 or nothing, she said.

The intersection of criminal and immigration law is complex and often changes, and VIAA lawyers have helped people navigate the system.

One program that will not continue is the Canada Bound program, which helped people crossing the United States as a route to Canada.

Stricter Canadian laws make it nearly impossible now for people to join family members who live in Canada.

Jenness also works with the Association of Africans Living in Vermont and intends to open a legal department there, she said.

"We made a critical difference in so many people's lives," she said.

Refugees also made a difference in the lives of the lawyers who helped them, she said. They were examples of courage, resilience and tenacity, she said.

"It's like bringing the world to your door," she said. "The current political crisis has a face to it."


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