Lawyers Aid Undocumented Filipino Immigrants

Attorney Merit Salud (left) assisting a Filipino woman who has questions about immigration - Photo: Cristina DC Pastor

Attorney Merit Salud (left) assisting a Filipino woman. (Photo: Cristina DC Pastor)

NEW YORK–An American man and his Filipino wife sought advice on how to legalize the woman’s immigration status…an out-of-status man is in detention and his wife wanted to know what his options were…a licensed physical therapist couldn’t find an employer who would sponsor her for a work visa–should she just pack up and go home or wait for the visa allotment to increase-–and for how long?

These were some of the questions that immigration lawyers of the Filipino American Legal Defense and Education Fund (FALDEF) tried to answer in their first community outreach session.  The Philippines is sometimes joked about as a country with way too many lawyers, but here in Manhattan, it seems there aren’t enough to go around.

About 30 Filipinos saddled with immigration problems took advantage of FALDEF’s offer of free legal advice on August 20, touted as the first of its kind in the community. In the 2000 Census, the FilAm (Filipino American) population in New York City was estimated to be more than 62,000, the fourth largest Asian ethnic group in the city. Lawyers said current estimates put the number at nearly 300,000 Filipinos in the New York tri-state area. One-third of them may be undocumented.

The top issues was looming deportation, revealed FALDEF President J.T. Mallonga. Many of those who came to seek legal advice had relatives who were either in detention or in hiding after an order of deportation had been issued by the courts.

Filipinos are held in detention centers all over New York and New Jersey, said Mallonga.  His group plans is to visit penitentiaries to find out if there are Filipinos in need of representation by lawyers working pro-bono.

“Many Filipinos facing deportation would rather go home than seek legal representation,” said Mallonga. “They’d tell family members, ‘go to the consulate and get me a passport. I’d rather go home.’”  That’s because deportees would rather save up the money than use it to pay exorbitant legal fees when getting them out of jail is not even guaranteed.

“I can’t blame them,” Mallonga commiserated. But he added that sometimes, immigration lawyers can appeal a case or find an acceptable compromise that would allow the deportee to stay in the country longer.

Ultimately, said FALDEF Vice President for External Affairs Merit Salud, “Only a Filipino can help a fellow Filipino.”

WHY NOW?

A volatile immigration environment and Arizona’s  statewide crackdown on undocumented immigrants prompted the founding  of FALDEF last year. Lawyers said they would be willing to travel across the country to defend Filipinos who may be picked up as a result of racial profiling.

“We’re willing to go to any place, including Arizona, to assist Filipinos who are unable to afford lawyers,”  Mallonga said. “We want to be their go-to place.”

Salud wishes Filipinos were more proactive about their legal status, and wouldn’t wait for deportation orders to be handed down before taking legal action.

“Anyone with immigration problems should consult a lawyer right away,” he said. “Usually, it’s too late when they come to us.”

The lawyers said they would like to see a legal defense fund like FALDEF in every state. Right now, FALDEF’s New York office has a dozen volunteer lawyers and about 15 community volunteers. They will be hosting a free legal clinic every month.

Some immigrants at the session also brought to the lawyers’ attention the long waits for family petitions to be approved. It takes 22 years for sibling petitions to be completed–an indication, Mallonga said, of the country’s “broken immigration system.”

A number of Filipino physical therapists were there for advice on the shrinking number of visas available to foreign-born health care workers. A FALDEF lawyer said while physical therapists are in the demand in the U.S., many skilled Filipinos cannot find jobs because visas are not available.

Salud vowed to help low-income Filipinos. “No member of our community will be left on his own,” he said.

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