GOSHEN. The nail biting is over
The Just Help: Elkhart County Legal Advocacy Center has finally received the $20,000 it needed to be able to launch its mission of providing legal assistance to those without funds or English language skills. Board member Dr. Michelle Shelly spoke enthusiastically about what that money will mean for the center. There are plans, already underway, to hire a director as well as an attorney within the next two months. The center will also rely on volunteer staff for the running of the day-to-day operations.
“This funding,” Shelly said, “represents a significant support from the community. There’s been tons of response.” Until now, those needing legal help and not having the funds to hire an attorney, had to try to figure things out themselves or apply to Elkhart County’s Legal Aid services. For those attempting do-it-yourself legal assistance in Indiana, the Internet offers a number of options.
www.in.gov/judiciary/selfservice/index.html, for example, takes the information seeker to The Indiana Supreme Court’s website “Self-Service Legal Center.” Other sites offer legal advice, some free, some for a fee. Most of them all offer a warning to the effect that while the forms and information provided on the site are useful, the user should still talk with an attorney prior to going to court. The websites offer advice primarily on divorce, small claims, appeals, child support, name changes and the like. Answers to those interested in immigration, for example, were not easily obtainable. South Bend attorney and CPA Frank Agostino warns those seeking immigration assistance to get educated and to be patient. “A lot of people are desperate to become legal, but will file forms they don’t qualify for. They may have an idea that amnesty exists when in fact it doesn’t.” He points out that filing forms can be expensive; for the immigrant who enters the US legally, applying for citizenship can cost over $1300.
Furthermore, he adds, while there are no applications for those who are here without documentation, there are defenses to deportation, but here again an attorney would be the best person to help sort them out.
South Bend attorney Rodolfo (Rudy) Monterrosa would agree. His reaction to an advocacy center which plans to offer Elkhart residents affordable legal services was an unqualified, “Great!” His concern was that the staff be well trained and bilingual. His experience has been that often someone who has become “familiar with forms (but) has no legal background can really lead people astray.”
Just Help has thought of that.
Recently board member Aracelia Manriquez returned from taking two people to Chicago to find an immigration attorney. She has been helping people find answers for some time. “Some people are afraid of police or government officials. The fear is there with Hispanics or just anybody who is low-income. Or they think, ‘No one will listen to me but if somebody who speaks English talks about me, then it’ll be all right.’ Recognizing the need for staff with legal background and the ability to speak Spanish, she stressed that both the director and staff attorney to be hired for Just Help need to be bilingual.
Elkhart’s Legal Aid Services represents low-income residents in Elkhart county. It deals with a variety of legal cases, including housing, divorce, name changes, school suspension, etc., but not immigration issues. Legal Aid secretary Ruth Batts says that non-English speaking clients “are not turned away, but we tell them they need to bring an interpreter.”
Shelly hopes that Just Help’s services will be able to fill the gap by offering services to Spanish-speaking clients. She also invites the curious to “check out our Spanish website.” Information about Just Help in both English and Spanish can be found at http://www.justhelplegal.org/
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