Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project opens new Lewiston office with support from Berman & Simmons

(Lewiston, ME – September 20, 2018) --  Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project (ILAP) has opened a new Lewiston office as part of an effort to serve more immigrants throughout the State of Maine in their communities. 

Founded in 1993, ILAP provides legal information and services to low-income immigrants seeking to gain protection from persecution and domestic violence, keep their families together, gain work permits or ‘green cards,’ or become proud U.S citizens.  ILAP also advocates for more just and humane laws and policies affecting immigrants and provides legal information and outreach to immigrant communities.

ILAP started as a pro bono project, and later became a staffed organization in 2000, with a staff of two who did everything from answering the phones and cleaning up the office to filing complex legal documents.  It has grown over the years through community support and partnerships, with a generous outpouring of support from donors in recent years.  Today, with a staff of fourteen, ILAP relies on an active panel of 160 attorneys who volunteer their services, contributing over 4,000 hours annually to represent asylum seekers. Together, ILAP’s staff and pro bono attorneys assist over 3,000 clients in a wide range of immigration matters each year.

Fatuma Hussein, director of the Immigrant Resource Center Of Maine (IRCM), formerly known as United Somali Women Of Maine, explains ILAP’s importance to the Lewiston immigrant community: “IRCM has partnered with ILAP since 2002. The two organizations have grown together and coordinated services through trainings, referrals, interpreter services and community education. ILAP provided much needed services. At the time, Maine was experiencing a lot of change that would set the stage for many years and generations to come. Lewiston Auburn was experiencing an influx of Somali immigrants and we were all confused, not understanding a lot around immigration laws and legal aid needs for immigrants.  ILAP met that need and the emerging needs of the community. It worked tirelessly to provide such crucial services and also developed many partnerships over the years.”

One of the partnerships ILAP has developed is with the Berman & Simmons law firm.  Berman & Simmons has been a committed supporter of ILAP. In 2017, ILAP named Berman & Simmons its Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year, and Alicia Curtis, Esq., an attorney at the firm, its 2017 Pro Bono Attorney of the Year.

The law firm has always held an open door to immigrants, stemming back to its founding more than a century ago when Lewiston was a mill town. With the mills running three shifts, the firm opened its office at the end of the evening shift change so that people coming to, or just leaving, work could have access to a lawyer. The firm also recruited multi-lingual staff from St. Dominic’s High School, who could interpret for French-speaking clients when needed. As managing partner Craig Bramley puts it, the firm’s roots are deep in the community, starting as a general practice dedicated to being “the people’s law firm.”

Supporting ILAP in opening its new Lewiston office is a natural extension of the firm’s commitment to the people of Lewiston. ILAP staff have been coming to Lewiston once a month to provide legal services and information for seventeen years.  As ILAP grew and a new wave of immigrants have come to Lewiston, many seeking asylum in the U.S from persecution in their home countries, ILAP increased its staff presence to once a week. 

It was quickly apparent that the community’s need to consult with a knowledgeable lawyer who could meet with clients unable to pay, far outstripped the limited hours available for appointment.  ILAP also needed more space and privacy than the small room that had been generously donated for their use in the Lewiston Adult Learning Center, where the sounds of clanging pots and pans from the Longley School’s kitchen sometimes drowned out sensitive discussions.  ILAP started fundraising for a Lewiston office with a full-time staff attorney.

Berman & Simmons stepped up, volunteering twenty thousand dollars a year for five years to help ILAP establish a Lewiston office, without having been asked.  Six attorneys at the firm have also volunteered their time on cases and recruit other attorneys in the Lewiston area to do the work.  This support from Berman & Simmons, as well as a significant multi-year grant from the Next Generation Foundation, and generous support from Lewiston community donors, allowed the organization to open its first office outside of Portland.  In a partnership with Bates College, French study students are placed at ILAP’s Lewiston Office through work study and internships to provide French interpretation and other legal assistance. 

The new office is located on the corner of Lisbon and Main Streets, at 11 Lisbon Street, Suite 201D.  It has two offices where ILAP’s new Lewiston staff attorney, Alice Kopij, and ILAP volunteers and interns can meet privately with people seeking ILAP’s services, uninterrupted by noise, and a comfortable waiting area. 

“We are incredibly grateful to Berman & Simmons,” said Susan Roche, Esq., Executive Director for ILAP. “As the immigrant community grows and Portland becomes more expensive, immigrants are on the move. We’ve seen a lot of growth in Lewiston over the last 20 years, most recently with an increase in Central African asylum seekers. The immigrant community needs a reliable, consistent resource to provide advocacy and, importantly, accurate information. This new office lets us do that.”

Attorneys who serve on ILAP’s pro bono panel in Lewiston represent clients from Djibouti, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other countries, in a range of cases.  Helping families reunify can be a particularly heartwarming part of asylum work. Attorney Curtis of Berman & Simmons recently represented a woman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who had raised her grandchildren as her own, until the family was separated by war in 2004. After searching for six years the family found each other again, yet it wasn’t until 2015 that the grandmother was able to make her way to the United States. Ms. Curtis represented the grandmother through the asylum process, overcoming challenges like a lack of documentation and the backlog of asylum applications. Ms. Curtis ultimately won her client asylum and was able to reunite the family here in Maine.

“ILAP’s work is critical to our community,” Ms. Curtis said. “Attorneys who volunteer their time on pro bono asylum cases can literally help people avoid almost certain death if they are returned to their home countries.  The data tells us that an attorney’s advocacy matters. Asylum seekers applying for asylum in immigration court without an attorney are facing a 90% denial rate, whereas ILAP pro bono attorneys have maintained a 100% approval rate for asylum claims that reach a final decision, in the past two years.” 

IRCM’s Fatuma Hussein emphasizes that “ILAP is a beacon of hope for many families in my community. Because of the work ILAP provided, many families are reunited today. It is because of ILAP’s advocacy that many families are accessing crucial benefits and services. It is because of ILAP’s vision and tireless work with so many partners, that many families are safe and protected. ILAP is and will always be a pioneer for the voiceless. We need to do whatever it takes to keep it growing and I’m glad we have this vision for Lewiston- Auburn today.”

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