Immigrant center soldiers on after cuts

Low-cost guidance for legal immigrants could be on the chopping block

David Gilbert
dgilbert@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 1/18/21

Glaucia Rabello's phone seldom stops ringing. From her office on the lower level of Littleton's Bemis Library, hour after hour, Rabello fields questions in English and Spanish from callers eager to …

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Immigrant center soldiers on after cuts

Low-cost guidance for legal immigrants could be on the chopping block

Posted

Glaucia Rabello's phone seldom stops ringing.

From her office on the lower level of Littleton's Bemis Library, hour after hour, Rabello fields questions in English and Spanish from callers eager to untangle byzantine dilemmas regarding their immigration status.

Work permits. Green cards. An ocean of forms and tests and hearings.

Rabello, the director of the Littleton Immigrant Resources Center (LIRC), now bears most of the weight of a city-run program that helps legal immigrants make the arduous journey to full citizenship, at a fraction of the cost of private immigration service agencies.

July 31, 2018: Littleton immigrant center offers American dream

The center only assists in immigration cases for legal immigrants, and does not provide legal assistance for undocumented immigrants.

From humble beginnings, the program grew — with support from six years of federal grants in the past decade — to become a vital component of the landscape of low-cost immigration services in the Denver area. But the center lost its federal funding in 2018, and the City of Littleton agreed to backfill it while the center sought new revenue.

Then came the pandemic, leaving city finances battered. The LIRC became one of many city departments facing deep cuts. New revenue sources have yet to emerge. With its services as in demand as ever, the center enters 2021 denuded and facing an uncertain future.

'My kids are here'

There was little time to think of the big picture on Jan. 15.

Rabello shook off the last few calls as she turned her attention to Maria Samaniego, who needed help renewing her work permit.

Samaniego, from Mexico, has been working on obtaining a green card, the final step before citizenship, but COVID-era bureaucratic quagmires have held it up. Samaniego's only option: Renew her work permit, a level below a green card in legal privileges.

The stakes are high: Any mistakes on the permit application could snowball into bigger setbacks. The legal immigration process can literally stretch out for decades. Having someone to help go over the paperwork is an added assurance. While other immigration legal services may charge as much as $700 for a review, the LIRC charges just $100.

Though not an attorney, Rabello is certified as an Accredited Representative by the Department of Justice, as are four of the center's volunteers -- none of whom are currently active. Rabello's expertise meant a great deal to Samaniego.

“My husband is in the hospital, recovering from surgery,” Samaniego said. “I've been working catering and food service, but there aren't many jobs right now. We don't have much money, and I'm praying to God I can keep my residency status. My kids are here.”

From humble beginnings

Founded in 2005 as an outgrowth of the Littleton Leadership Retreat, a local civic affairs brainstorming group, the LIRC initially offered a narrow range of referral services.

But after landing a two-year, $250,000 grant from U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) in 2012, the center greatly expanded its services, adding citizenship and English classes and several staff members specially trained in filing citizenship applications. The City of Littleton matched the grant, adding $125,000 each year from the city's general fund to support the center's efforts.

The center's grant was renewed in 2014 and 2016. But in 2018, USCIS declined to renew the grant, saying that while the LIRC scored high marks in most eligibility criteria, it fell short of student attendance goals for follow-up tests after citizenship classes.

Littleton City Council then agreed to fully fund the center — to the tune of roughly $300,000 a year — through 2020, with the goal of finding more outside funding. Those efforts have largely come up short.

April 22, 2019: Fear, loss of funds challenge Littleton immigrant center

In 2020, as part of city-wide budget-slashing measures amid the pandemic, city officials began slicing away at the program, laying off a legal coordinator, a citizenship class coordinator and a receptionist. Three people remain on staff: Rabello, an English teacher and a volunteer coordinator. From a high of more than $300,000 two years ago, the center's budget in 2021 is $147,084.

May 4, 2020: Future murky for Littleton immigrant center

Good citizenship

Citizenship classes have been cut from the program's offerings. The backlog of clients waiting for assistance with legal filings has grown. English classes continue, but only online, which can be tricky in low-income households with poor internet connections or for people who are elderly or struggle with technology.

The LIRC has long depended on a slew of volunteers, but their numbers have fallen from about 100 before the pandemic to roughly 50 now. Some of the volunteers, many of them seniors, also struggle with the new virtual paradigm.

“It's been hard, but we're adapting as best as we can,” Rabello said. For those who can navigate the new online offerings, there's a benefit: The services can reach more people, without the trouble of coming to the library in person.

Rabello is currently juggling 90 active immigration cases.

“They're taking longer now, because COVID has made the agencies very slow,” she said.

Losing the citizenship classes was a blow to the center, Rabello told a meeting of the city's Next Generation Advisory Committee in October. Immigrants who want citizenship must undergo a civics exam, which was recently expanded from 100 possible questions to 128.

“Our system of government is unlike many others in the world,” Rabello said in October. “Immigrants need someone to explain how things work and what the Constitution is. It gives them a chance to understand how our society is organized.”

'The stakes are high'

The center fills an important niche in Denver-area immigration services, said Atim Otii, the director of the Denver Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, Denver's city-run immigrant resource center.

“There are only nine centers that offer affordable legal services in the Denver area, and we have 350,000 immigrants and refugees in the metro area,” Otii said. “Demand is high, and immigration is a very complex process.”

USCIS leaves little wiggle room for incorrectly filed paperwork, Otii said. Small mistakes can cause rejections and setbacks for people in vulnerable situations.

“Folks are desperate for the opportunities and rights that come with citizenship, and when they can't get low-cost services, many will turn to family and friends, or unscrupulous services that may be ineffective or charge exorbitant amounts,” Otii said. “It can have severe consequences. The stakes are high.”

Seeking citizenship became tougher in the Trump era as the federal government took a hardline approach to immigration, said Julia Guzman, a Littleton-area immigration attorney who provides low-cost services.

“There have been a lot of directives to immigration officials to deny a lot more stuff,” Guzman said. “Applications are getting denied because someone left a blank where they should have written in N/A. It's got to be perfect, and LIRC is good at that.”

Limited resources

But with the city facing ongoing revenue shortfalls amid a prolonged pandemic and a sputtering economy, the LIRC falls low on the city's priority list.

“This program was built up on grant funding that is no longer there,” said City Manager Mark Relph. “Even before the pandemic, city council said they were not interested in investing general fund dollars into this in perpetuity. If you look at any piece of the city budget in isolation, it's hard to say 'let's cut that.' But we had to cut a lot of things and make tough decisions. We're trying to be as efficient as we can.”

Local nonprofit groups have a role to play in keeping the center afloat, but it will take a community effort, said Susan Thornton, a former mayor of Littleton who helped create the center as part of the Littleton Leadership Retreat. Thornton now heads Immigrant Pathways Colorado, a nonprofit that provides grants to help immigrants pay the costs of applying for citizenship. 

"The LIRC is wonderful, but we just can't fund a major project of the city," Thornton said. "Teaching citizenship and English are so important. Immigrants are here to stay, and they want to speak English and integrate so they can succeed in careers and help their kids in school. People say they want immigrants to come in 'the right way,' and that's what the LIRC helps them do."

In October, Rabello told the Next Generation Advisory Committee — a commission of people age 36 and younger who advise the City of Littleton on policy matters that impact the attraction and retention of young residents and employees — that the immigrant center has come under scrutiny from city leaders because much of its clientele lives outside Littleton.

“The mayor would like us to work for Littleton residents,” Rabello told the group. “But as we're recognized and accredited, we need to work for low-income people, regardless of which city they live in. I understand city taxpayers are funding us, but we have a mission to accomplish. It can't be delineated to city limits.”

Littleton Mayor Jerry Valdes said while he greatly admires the work the center does, it will remain a low priority in difficult economic times.

“I wish we had lots of money to take care of lots of programs,” Valdes said. “It's easy to look like a good guy by giving away taxpayer money to good programs, but it's my fiduciary responsibility to be a good steward of our very limited resources.”

Valdes said it's too soon to say whether the council will seek to cut the LIRC program's remaining city funding. Council will begin its 2022 budget process in spring.

“Yes, it could be on the chopping block, like a lot of other programs we're looking at,” Valdes said. “It's about what we can do, not what we want to do.”

Valdes said he and his wife have donated thousands of dollars to the program over the years, and his brother has volunteered as a tutor.

“If citizens really want this program to continue at a high level," the mayor said, "they need to start volunteering their time and digging in their own pockets.”

Click here to donate to the Littleton Immigrant Resources Center.

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