Securing Safety for Low-Income Immigrant Survivors in Contra Costa County: A Holistic Approach
Silvia,* a 26-year-old undocumented woman, walked into West County Health Center with a broken nose and two black eyes, her toddler trailing closely behind her. She was seven months pregnant, and her boyfriend had just hit her – again. This time, Silvia called the police and he was arrested, but she was afraid that he would return upon his release. Silvia’s doctor treated her injuries and referred her to the on-site Medical-Legal Partnership attorney, who helped her obtain a domestic violence restraining order, maintain her housing, apply for a U visa for crime victims and qualify for public benefits, including full-scope Medi-Cal. Today, Silvia is receiving therapy and healing from the abuse she endured.
Every year, Bay Area Legal Aid provides free legal services to roughly 10,000 low-income individuals, many of whom are immigrants and survivors of interpersonal violence like Silvia. Our mission across our six offices is to provide meaningful access to the civil justice system through quality legal assistance regardless of a client’s location, language or disability. Bay Area Legal Aid assists people who live in households with annual incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines – a figure that in 2019 amounted to $15,613 for an individual and $32,188 for a family of four. Last year, our Legal Advice Line, Health Consumer Center, attorneys, advocates and volunteers helped more than 2,165 individuals and their families living in Contra Costa County with matters relating to family law, immigration relief, housing preservation, public benefits, consumer law, and health access. About 19 percent of these clients were non-citizens. In addition, our staff and volunteers prepared restraining order paperwork for 587 self-represented litigants, regardless of their legal status, at our three domestic violence restraining order clinics throughout Contra Costa County.
Many of our clients live in mixed-status families. Our immigrant client population is diverse and encompasses lawful permanent residents, asylee- and refugee-status holders, naturalized citizens and undocumented survivors of interpersonal violence. The latter includes survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and child abuse. Immigrant survivors come to Bay Area Legal Aid with a myriad of legal issues. Our clients may need help getting a restraining order against their abuser; representation in family law matters, such as custody, support, divorce, or establishing parentage; securing or preserving their immigration status; obtaining and maintaining public benefits and health access; and retaining their housing, among other legal needs. Each survivor’s situation differs and their needs often change over time. Our attorneys guide our clients through civil courts and state and federal administrative agencies, while providing them with wraparound services to maximize their personal safety, stabilize their family and achieve economic security.
Obtaining immigration relief is critical to ensuring the safety of immigrant survivors. Congress created special immigration remedies with the explicit intent of protecting victims of interpersonal violence and reducing their reliance on abusers. The mere act of applying for immigration relief can result in survivors’ immediate eligibility for certain public benefits to meet their basic needs, such as food and shelter, and access to health care coverage to help them heal from the trauma they endured. Once granted, immigration remedies stabilize families by making it possible for our clients to remain with their United States citizen children, and, in some cases, bring their family members from abroad. Our clients are often able to obtain authorization to work lawfully in this country so as to reduce the likelihood of further exploitation.
Our immigration advocacy consists primarily of representation before United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. We help with Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) self-petitions for spouses of abusive United States citizens and lawful permanent residents; I-751 waivers for abused spouses to self-petition for the removal of conditions on their two-year green card and obtain their ten-year lawful permanent resident card; U Nonimmigrant Status applications (“U visas”) for survivors who have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse and who were helpful in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity of which they were a victim; T Nonimmigrant Status applications (“T visas”) for survivors of labor and sex trafficking; Special Immigrant Juvenile Status petitions for abused, unmarried young people; and related applications for fee waivers and work authorization. Our attorneys and advocates continue to work with immigrant clients to help them adjust their status to become lawful permanent residents and eventually become United States citizens. We also aid survivors in requesting replacement green cards and work authorizations stolen or destroyed by their abuser or trafficker.
Providing holistic services to immigrant survivors entails working in close partnership with other organizations and agencies, such as the Family Justice Center (“FJC”). The navigators at the FJC connect our immigrant clients to advocates for safety planning, counseling, shelter, and court accompaniment for emotional support at hearings; to Victim Witness Advocates for help in applying for victim’s compensation; and to volunteer doctors who offer free medical care. In turn, Bay Area Legal Aid attorneys conduct intakes and client meetings onsite, help train staff and community partners through the Family Justice Institute and participate in the multi-disciplinary teams on the prevention of domestic violence and human trafficking hosted by the FJC to address systemic issues.
Bay Area Legal Aid also collaborates with the private bar in advocating for immigrant survivors. Volunteer attorneys represent immigrant clients and their families in their U visas, VAWA self-petitions, and related adjustment of status cases, with technical and strategic support from Bay Area Legal Aid’s immigration experts. Bay Area Legal Aid’s Medical-Legal Partnership (“MLP”) at West County Health Center is another partnership with the private bar where the MLP attorney is an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP. MLPs integrate healthcare and legal services to improve the social determinants of health. Rather than relying on patients to navigate complex referral networks, MLPs meet patients where they are and leverage the trusting relationships that patients already have with their doctors.
The West County Health Center in San Pablo, where the MLP is located, serves a particularly high-need population: more than three-quarters of its patients are eligible for Medi-Cal because they are extremely low-income. The MLP provides Spanish-speaking survivors of interpersonal violence like Silvia with free civil legal services to improve their health and well-being. In less than two years, it has assisted more than 200 low-income patients with legal needs in the areas of immigration, family law, housing, consumer law and benefits.
Consider the story of Yesica,* a new mom whose request for emergency food stamps was erroneously denied. She and her newborn were hungry, and her breast milk was drying up due to stress and malnutrition. After the MLP attorney called the CalFresh office, Yesica’s benefits were approved the next day.
Elizabeth,* an undocumented pregnant woman seeking a divorce from her abuser, met with the MLP lawyer to sign the petition for dissolution while she waited in the exam room for a prenatal appointment.
Neylin,* who is undergoing treatment for cancer, said it best: “I spend my life traveling in a triangle: From my home, to the supermarket, to my health center. I never would have known that I could talk to a lawyer, in Spanish, for free, if my doctor hadn’t told me.”
Every day, our immigrant clients awe us with their resiliency. Their courage and steadfastness inspire us to advocate for them, in tandem with partner agencies, the private bar, and the medical community, and to help them stand up for their rights and dignity. To learn more about Bay Area Legal Aid and to get involved in our work, visit https://baylegal.org/get-involved/.
*Names changed to protect client confidentiality.