Berkshire Immigrant Center's campaign seeks to raise legal aid for clients

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PITTSFIELD — The more than 10,000 immigrants living in Berkshire County make up more than 40 percent of business owners in downtown Pittsfield and 20 percent in Williamstown.

If they were to leave tomorrow, stores, restaurants and hotels would shutter and labor shortages would soar, according to Brooke Mead, executive director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center.

"It would be chaos," Mead said. "From teachers to doctors to nurses to CNAs to people making beds in hotels, it would be a disaster for us and we would mourn our co-workers, our neighbors and friends. The Berkshires can't operate without immigrants."

That's the idea behind the Berkshire Immigrant Center's 10,000 Strong Campaign, an effort kicked off this month — Immigrant Heritage Month — to raise $10,000 to put toward legal aid offered to the region's immigrant population.

The center offers assistance to 600 to 800 clients a year who are applying or renewing documentation, seeking to reunite with their family members though petitioning a relative, and requiring other immigration services for a fraction of the price it would cost to obtain an attorney.

On Tuesday, less than a week after the Berkshire Immigrant Center was awarded the Massachusetts Nonprofit Networks' Nonprofit Excellence Award at the Massachusetts Statehouse, Mead sat at her desk in her East Street office and shuffled through a stack of files.

One file held the case of a client looking to renew their sister's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) status. Another client was the brother of a woman who was detained while crossing the border into the United States with her 8-year-old son. A third was a U.S. resident for 15 years who had been seeking his citizenship for a long time, but now suffers from dementia and needs a waiver from some of the test requirements.

Mead said she's trying to back away from a full caseload so she can focus on the administrative side of running the nonprofit, but is struggling to because the most rewarding part of her job is working directly with the clients.

"These are people who have sacrificed everything for a better life," she said.

Sonal Vyas, who owns Cozy Corner Motel in Williamstown, has been a client of the Berkshire Immigration Center several times since she arrived in the United States from India in 2006.

"I owe Brooke because I had huge help from her; my whole family [did]," Vyas said. "If you hire a lawyer, it's too expensive. I know if we need any help, it's so much money we have to spend. At the Immigration Center, it's not [like that] at all; it's just legal fees."

Immigration law allows legal residents to petition to bring their unmarried children to the United States until they are 21. When Vyas' father was eligible to petition for her, she already had been 21 for five months, which delayed her arrival and cost her family a significant amount of money in litigation costs.

At the time, Vyas' entire family already was living in the United States.

"My dad was fighting for me at the Indian Embassy," she said. "They wouldn't allow me to come here because I was 21."

After arriving in the Berkshires, Vyas met Mead at Berkshire Community College and learned about the services offered at the center.

So, when she and her now-husband needed assistance petitioning for his parents, or the family had additional immigration paperwork to fill out, they were able to do so without hiring an attorney, said Vyas, who achieved her citizenship in 2014.

"That was a huge help," she said.

Mead said there is a misunderstanding about why immigrants seeking documentation might need legal services. The Berkshire Immigration Center doesn't handle open deportation cases, but routine immigration needs, like becoming a legal resident or sponsoring family members, are complicated enough that many people need assistance.

"We see doctors and lawyers and we see people who may have had a sixth-grade education," Mead said. "People will say that if you need a lawyer, you must have done something wrong, but that's not true. It's complicated; it's really not that simple."

Some immigrants, though, are nervous to share their information with the government, in fear of deportation under the current administration.

But overall, Mead said, "the administration doesn't stop people from living their lives."

"I think that fear has existed for a long time," Mead said. "It has been hard to draw a crowd of people and it has gotten worse under this administration. I think there is this fear that if a group of immigrants is gathering, that immigration will come."

In September, the Department of Homeland Security began to phase out DACA, a policy created under President Barack Obama's administration in 2012 that allows some children of immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally to work, live and study here if they were younger than 16 when they arrived, and if they arrived by 2007. The program defers deportation action for two years at a time, but doesn't confer legal status.

The House is expected to vote next week on two bills that will offer a solution for recipients of the expiring DACA program and increase immigration enforcement.

The Berkshire Immigration Center consults about 20 to 30 people a year on DACA applications or renewals, Mead said, but not all of them are eligible for the program.

Mead has said that no matter what happens with the DACA program, the policy is not a solution, and congressional action is what is needed to create a meaningful pathway to legal status.

Mead knows of at least three men who have either been deported or detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers this year, including one of her close friends.

In January, her best friend's husband, who has been living in the United States for 16 years and has never committed a crime, was deported.

The man, whose wife is a DACA recipient and has two young children, was first issued a removal order when, the family believes, a neighbor tipped them off about his immigration status. Since then, he had been in the country on a stay of removal, which had been renewed several times, Mead said.

But this year, he was deported; his wife and children will join him in South America.

An attorney tried to reopen the man's immigration case and his employer was willing to sponsor him, but they were unsuccessful, Mead said.

The only chance for the family to be able to return legally is to wait for the oldest child, who is in middle school, to turn 21 and sponsor them, Mead said. In the meantime, if Congress creates a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, his wife likely will have forfeited it by moving back to South America with her family, Mead said.

"We failed this woman, who I feel is a citizen in all but papers," Mead said of her friend. "It's our loss as a county. They're good people holding jobs in the community. Their kids are great and talented. It's our loss."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.

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