In Tennessee, need for immigration legal help far outweighs supply

Local leaders seek to replicate publicly funded legal support initiatives underway in other cities and states. 

By: - January 3, 2023 6:36 am
Fuad Suleman emigrated from Iraq with his family in 2017. Now a U.S. citizen, he assists other immigrants with the resettlement process. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Fuad Suleman emigrated from Iraq with his family in 2017. Now a U.S. citizen, he assists other immigrants with the resettlement process. (Photo: John Partipilo)

On Super Bowl Sunday in 2017, Fuad Suleman, his wife and three children were greeted in the Nashville International Airport by a crowd of hundreds who welcomed them to their new city after an exhausting journey from Iraq. The family had been caught in what was known as the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban” and had been denied entrance weeks earlier.

“They were chanting, ‘Welcome home,’” Suleman said. “I never forget that moment.” 

Suleman had worked as a translator for an organization helping the U.S. government in Iraq and his family had been approved for Special Immigrant Visas. They had sold their home, their car and were no longer safe in their home country.

“I put my life, my family’s life in danger, in jeopardy because of my link helping the U.S. government,” he said. 

In mid-December, Suleman and his family became U.S. citizens, a status that they obtained with the free help of Tennessee Immigration & Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC)’s legal team in Nashville. During two visits and through emails, TIRRC legal representatives guided him through the application and interview process and helped him avoid pitfalls that had delayed or disrupted the process for others he knew. 

“I wanted a perfect application, not any place for errors or any mistakes,” Suleman said. 

As citizens, Suleman and his wife already registered to vote, they are eligible for public benefits and they no longer have to worry about being turned away from the U.S. again. 

“It was a long journey, a lot of ups and downs, a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear,” he said. “Now, we feel confident we are really in our home.”

Across Tennessee, in both rural and urban areas, demand for immigration legal services far exceeds supply and the need has grown more acute as immigrant communities have expanded. The issue affects the ability for newcomers to avoid deportation, obtain drivers’ licenses and work permits, access benefits they are eligible for and engage more fully in their communities.

“We can get a dozen calls a day from various families needing legal representation and we can only take a fraction of those,”  said Ashley Cuber, an attorney with Latino Memphis. “Other nonprofits such as ours that do low cost, or pro-bono legal services, they are absolutely slammed and absolutely don’t have the resources to take all the cases.”

In Tennessee, there were 2,200 undocumented immigrants for every immigration legal professional at charitable organizations, well above the national average of 1,400, according to a recent report from The Center for Migration Studies in New York. There are fewer than 45 Tennessee immigration attorneys listed by American Immigration Lawyers Association, and close to half offer help with deportation and asylum cases.

“Over a decade now, Tennessee has had a really fast-growing immigrant population,” Lisa Sherman Luna, executive director of TIRRC in Nashville, said. “There hasn’t been enough infrastructure that has been built to support that rapid growth.” 

Immigrant advocates argue that while the individuals in need of legal support or defense have the most at stake, the ramifications of inadequate resources ripples across communities, affecting family stability, classrooms, income levels, and road and neighborhood safety.

Across Tennessee, in both rural and urban areas, demand for immigration legal services far exceeds supply even as the need has grown: there are 2,200 undocumented immigrants for every legal professional at charitable organizations.

“These are really high-impact cases,” Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, said. “As people are able to stabilize in a particular place and integrate and advance in status, they are able to earn more, contribute more, buy homes and basically become more established in the community to the benefit of everyone. It’s an extremely important service.”

Navigating the system

Given the complexities of the U.S. immigration system, legal representation can be vital to filing a status claim or defending against removal. A 2015 study from the University of Pennsylvania Law Review found that detained immigrants with legal representation were more than 10 times more likely to have their cases terminated or obtain relief than those without legal help. 

“The vast majority who are in removal and can afford an attorney or have an attorney to fight for them are actually eligible to be here under immigration relief,” Luna said. “It’s almost nonexistent that people can afford an attorney.”

Immigration cases are civil, not criminal, which means that no public counsel is appointed. Of pending cases heard at the Memphis Immigration Court, nearly 70 percent are unrepresented, according to New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, citing Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

For those seeking asylum, applications, accompanying evidence and affidavits can end up inches high, even when an applicant comes from a country where violence is well-established, said Bethany Jackson, legal director of Tennessee Justice For our Neighbors (TNJFON). Applicants must accurately disclose immigration histories, contact with law enforcement and health issues and they must explain why they are at risk in their home country.

“It’s not just filling out a form with your name and address and where you came from,” Jackson said. “You have the burden of proof. You have to prove your eligibility for each requirement for asylum.”

In the past year, Nashville has become home to more than 500 Afghan refugees and to several Ukrainians, each of whom need legal assistance in their pursuit of asylum status. While those humanitarian crises have gained significant media coverage, local asylum seekers from several other countries — Haiti, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela, etc. — are also in need of legal help. 

As people are able to stabilize in a particular place and integrate and advance in status, they are able to earn more, contribute more, buy homes and basically become more established in the community to the benefit of everyone. It’s an extremely important service.

– Donald Kerwin, Center for Migration Studies

“We serve people from all over the world,” Jackson said. “They are all coming to the U.S. for the same reason. They just want a better future for their families and they are fleeing the same things the Afghans are. They want to be physically safe.”

While an attorney can boost success rates, the cost of hiring one is often insurmountable. There is a limited pool of those who can offer pro bono work, but the cost often exceeds what clients can afford.

“You could be looking at spending $10,000 on an asylum case, easily,” TNJFON Executive Director Tessa Lemos Del Pino said. “If you are somebody who came here with nothing, there is no way you could pay that.”

Often, asylum seekers will see the expense or challenge of accessing a private attorney and will turn instead to less expensive and less qualified professionals. They could end up paying for bad advice that can further complicate their path to legal status if they file incorrect information, Jackson said.

In Tennessee, there are more than 71,000 lawful permanent residents eligible to naturalize, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration services, but they may lack the resources or the know-how to proceed, Luna said. There are 2,900 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients in Middle Tennessee who must seek renewal every two years. Many crime victims, trafficking victims and other immigrant groups are eligible for protected status but need lawyers to effectively navigate the system. 

“There is just so much need out there,” said Chay Sengkhounmany, an attorney at Legal Aid Society in Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, who helps immigrant victims of domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual assault. She and her colleague each have ongoing caseloads of at least 70 cases. “There are very few free legal services that are available. We do have to turn down quite a few people.”

In October, TIRRC helped Franklin resident Anel Flores apply for citizenship. The designation will mean being able to vote, make traveling easier and also free her of any concerns about having to leave the U.S.  Before obtaining her Green Card in 2017, Flores and her son waited for years in Mexico City to be reunited with her husband in Franklin. Finding a reliable Nashville attorney was critical to her return to Tennessee, where she had built a life for herself a decade prior. 

“I prefer to be sure that I am doing it correct,” Flores, 42, said. “As I learned in the past, I think it is going to be better if I have someone who can help me in the process.” 

For Suleman and his wife, citizenship has meant a new confidence and sense of security in their lives. He is now a case manager for Nashville International Center for Empowerment and helps other immigrants resettle. He often greets new arrivals at the Nashville airport as they begin their next chapter in a new, unfamiliar city and connects them to resources that can help them get started.

“I remember myself every time,” he said of his airport duties. “I put myself in their place. It’s a great feeling when I help them, when I see smiles from their faces, on their kids’ faces. It gives me a huge love. I can’t find suitable words.”

Universal representation growing nationwide

Across the country, cities, counties and some states have launched representation programs to provide free deportation defense for immigrants and some initiatives have covered expenses for those in need of affirmative relief, as well. The effort began with a pilot program in New York City in 2013 and programs are now underway in more than 55 jurisdictions, including Denver, Dallas and Atlanta and nine states, according to Vera Institute. Some initiatives have begun with six-digit budgets, while others provide millions of dollars. In 2022, Oregon approved a $15 million initiative. 

“In the last 10 years, there has really been incredible growth in the movement at the local and state level for public funding for deportation defense,” said Annie Chen, Vera Institute’s director of Advancing Universal Representation. “You are seeing this all around the country.”

There has been pushback in some areas from lawmakers who object to public dollars going toward legal costs for immigrants, but advocates argue these initiatives go to ensure that eligibility laws are actually being followed. 

“We are talking about giving people the ability to access rights that they are entitled under current immigration law,” Chen said. 

TIRRC and TNJFON were awarded a $1.8 million grant in June from the federal American Rescue Plan through Metro Nashville. They have trained local law school students and have hosted free legal services clinics serving Davidson County residents, assisting close to 200 Nashville residents in the grant’s first five months. Through the funding support, both organizations have added attorneys and paralegals to their legal teams and are helping multiple staff members pursue U.S. Department of Justice certification that will allow them to provide legal counsel.

Luna described the funding as “transformative,” but the needs exist beyond Nashville and beyond the scope of the grant. She would like to see the funds as part of Metro Nashville’s ongoing budget and to include support for citizenship classes and English language classes. The same could be replicated by other local governments in Tennessee. Ideally, the state government could be part of a longer term solution, but with a largely conservative state legislature, she said sees more success in municipal support. 

“When you do have the infrastructure and support systems in place, people can actually succeed, they can give back to their communities rather than being a burden on the community,” Luna said. “If we can tackle it county by county and expand access, I think we can make a big difference in the lives of a lot of people across Tennessee.”

Comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level could simplify the immigration system and make a lawyer less essential, which is ultimately the top priority for TIRRC, TNJFON and other immigration nonprofits. In the meantime, access to lawyers is one way of helping individuals access the status they are qualified for, Jackson said. 

“What we have to do is help them navigate the law as it exists,” Jackson said. “It’s not efficient and, frankly, it’s not cost effective to do it that way. We’d be much better off if Congress would reform our immigration system, but this is where we find ourselves.”

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Jamie McGee
Jamie McGee

Jamie McGee covered economic issues for The Tennessean and prior to that, was a reporter for the Nashville Business Journal. Her stories have been featured regularly by USA Today, and she received a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant. She has written for Bloomberg News and The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., and has a Masters in journalism from Columbia University.