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Church legal clinic gives immigrants place to turn

Published:Wednesday | July 30, 2014 | 12:00 AM

INDIANA, Logansport, (AP):

She's worried about her oldest daughter, now almost 18, who's residing with strangers in Honduras.

She talks to her daughter almost daily, she said, but the last time she saw her in person was when her daughter was seven years old.

That's because she's undocumented and can't leave the U.S. without running the risk of being shut out of the country.

The woman from Honduras is one of more than three dozen clients who've already sought help from The Bridge Community Church to straighten out their legal status. The Logansport church at the corner of Third Street and Linden Avenue recently opened Indiana's 13th non-profit immigration clinic licensed through the US Bureau of Immigration Appeals.

Zach Szmara, the church's pastor, also serves as the accredited immigration legal representative for the clinic. After becoming the church's pastor about two years ago, he and others at the church decided to reach out to local Latino residents and change the church's identity into "a church that's multicultural, multilingual," he told the Pharos-Tribune . "Let's not be a white church that has a Spanish service."

The change was rocky. But the church has grown to an average 60 to 80 attendees on a Sunday, up from the 20 or so who showed up for the first service Szmara preached as a guest minister. Both English- and Spanish-speakers were attracted to the church over the last couple of years, Szmara said.

STRUGGLING

That's when he noticed plenty of people struggling to navigate the hoops of becoming legal residents.

He estimates one in three Logansport residents are from immigrant families, based on data from the Logansport schools. The US Census Bureau's American Communities Survey suggests 73.4 per cent of Cass County's 3,226 foreign-born residents are not US citizens.

"What we started hearing was all this need for immigration help," Szmara said. "There's just no one around."

When he and another man started training to become accredited legal immigration representatives, meaning they're allowed to file paperwork or appear in immigration courts on behalf of someone, the nearest accredited legal representatives were in Indianapolis. Attorneys specialising in immigration paperwork were at least that far away, too.