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Immigration Legal Services as the Foundation for Improving Lives

September 6, 2022


The Marin Lawyer last checked in with Canal Alliance during the first year of the pandemic when we asked several of Marin’s major nonprofits how the pandemic was changing how they operate. We thought it was time for a more comprehensive update from Canal Alliance and so we asked its CEO, Omar Carrera, to share his thoughts on key aspects of its work.

For readers not familiar with Canal Alliance, its mission is to break the generational cycle of poverty for Latino immigrants and their families by offering immigration legal services, education and career programs, and social services to help them overcome barriers to their success.

The Marin Lawyer: Why is providing immigration services for the Latino community in Marin vital?

Omar Carrera: Data shows that having legal status or at least a work permit is a major step to achieving economic stability. Our Immigration Legal Services (“ILS”) department is the only low or no-cost provider of immigration services in Marin. By helping community members achieve legal status in the United States, we are helping to remove some of the legal barriers and systemic inequities that are stacked against Latino immigrants in our community.

The Marin Lawyer: COVID changed both your clients’ needs and how you provide services. How have both of those continued to change as the pandemic has evolved?

Omar Carrera: While the legal needs of ILS clients remain the same, COVID has amplified the social issues and inequities that the Latino immigrant community already struggled with. COVID forced our ILS department to develop hybrid in-person and remote operations, and I am very proud of our success in maintaining pre-COVID capacity and quality of service throughout the pandemic. From a client standpoint, the hybrid model has proven to have both benefits and challenges. For example, the move to phone consultations and case management gives clients more flexibility in scheduling appointments, resulting in less time off from work or school. On the other hand, the switch to remote consultations and fewer in-person client interactions has been tough for many clients and has shed more light on the need to increase efforts to close the digital divide.

The Marin Lawyer: How many clients did Canal Alliance serve for legal support before and during the pandemic?

Omar Carrera: Just before the pandemic, in 2019, we provided 966 consultations and had 413 open legal cases. During the worst part of the pandemic from March 2020 to 2021, we provided 854 consultations and had 505 open cases. For the most part, capacity remained steady throughout the pandemic. These numbers really show how remarkable ILS has been in maintaining services in the midst of crisis.

The Marin Lawyer: What are the most requested services?

Omar Carrera: The increase in opening new legal cases during the pandemic is in part due to a large increase in demand from youth who qualify for humanitarian relief after fleeing their home countries. While we still receive many requests for general immigration legal consultations, U-visas and other forms of adult affirmative Humanitarian Visa application assistance, we have experienced a great influx of immigrant children in the community who qualify for Affirmative Asylum and Special Immigration Juvenile Status. In fact, there is a higher per-capita number of these young people arriving in Marin County than in any other county in the Bay Area. Thankfully, this influx coincided with the launch of our Opportunities for Youth program. With funding from the State of California, this program allows us to collaborate with staff on our social services team to provide many newly arrived immigrants with comprehensive case management services.

The Marin Lawyer: Speaking of staff, how many do you have and where do you have a need for more?

Omar Carrera: Our ILS department currently employs 12 full-time staff. This includes four attorneys, three paralegals, our operations and outreach team, and one law school graduate/clerk. Based on demand in the community for services like ours, there’s an overwhelming need for growth. If we had the funding available, we would absolutely enjoy the opportunity to increase our legal services capacity in naturalization assistance and other Humanitarian Visa support.

The Marin Lawyer: You have partnered with Legal Aid of Marin, MCBA and BASF. How successful have these partnerships been? How are you improving these and other alliances and what programs are in the works?

Omar Carrera: In the past, these partnerships were usually focused on providing workshops for naturalization and DACA. We had high levels of turnout at these events and, as a result, many members of our community now have their work permits and citizenship. Due to COVID and other ethical considerations, we have moved away from the workshop approach in favor of individualized legal representation. In our current partnership with Legal Aid of Marin, we are working to create a new model for pro bono engagement. We hope that this new model will provide an avenue for members of MCBA and BASF to provide more pro-bono support to our clients. In the meantime, Legal Aid of Marin continues to support the Latino immigrant community by offering free in-person legal consultations for employment and housing issues every Tuesday morning, during our free weekly food pantry. It is also worth mentioning our legal team’s partnership with Family and Children’s Law Center. FACLC does amazing work, and our partnership with them has been crucial to navigating the Family Court process for our Special Immigrant Juvenile Status clients.

The Marin Lawyer: What are the most pressing issues facing Canal Alliance in delivering legal services to your clients?

Omar Carrera: The most pressing issue facing our ILS department is capacity. While we are very proud of the quality of service that we are able to provide our clients, there is much greater need for services than we are able to provide and we often must refer many members of the community to outside organizations or to private attorneys. Additional and sustainable funding would allow us to hire more staff and increase capacity. ILS is also always looking for opportunities to expand its capacity internally and to develop relationships with low bono or pro bono organizations and attorneys in Marin County.

The Marin Lawyer: For our members who do not speak Spanish, how can they help?

Omar Carrera: For members who are flourishing in their practice and might be short on time, we welcome their financial support so that we may continue to employ the full-time staff necessary to continue this important work. For those who have the time but lack Spanish language proficiency, I encourage MCBA members to reach out to us. Having a roster of interested attorneys would greatly support our ability to design pro-bono programs with our partners at LAM and FACLC, and may also prove helpful in the event that we decide to host workshops in the future.

The Marin Lawyer: Are there other services that you are currently not providing that you would like to provide?

Omar Carrera: In addition to expanding our capacity to assist with more naturalization, U Visa and SIJS cases, we would also like to start offering assistance with family petitions and green card renewals again. We’ve had success in offering both of these services in the past, but due to limited capacity, we had to shift the majority of our efforts and focus on the representation of community members eligible for citizenship and Humanitarian Visas.

Read the article at MCBA

Read more posts in: Immigration

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