November 2018 Cover Story – Legal Aid Society of Orange County-Community Legal Services: Celebrating Sixty Years and Serving New Communities

by Kate Marr

After a brief time dating each other, Anna and Jacob (names changed) decided to make a commitment, and moved in together. However, it would not be long before Jacob began to exhibit dictatorial behavior and engage in the physical and verbal abuse of Anna that would prevail throughout their relationship.

Jacob’s controlling behavior started to surface when he began to make demands about Anna’s choice of attire and how she comported herself, ordering her to dress conservatively and to look down when they were in public. He also started to express jealousy of Anna’s male co-worker, eventually leading to the first incident of physical abuse in their short relationship. Jacob accused Anna of having an affair with the man, and when she denied it, he attacked and beat her.

After a year together, Anna discovered that Jacob was having an affair. Though the affair distressed and hurt Anna, after an apology from Jacob, she agreed to take him back. Nevertheless, Jacob continued his philandering, and when Anna became pregnant with their first child, she discovered that Jacob was also expecting a child with another woman. She confronted him and again he apologized; they reconciled and then married.

Jacob’s jealousy and controlling, abusive behavior didn’t change with marriage. Their relationship continued in a steady rhythm of physical and verbal abuse meted out by him. Anna never called the police or reported the incidents because she was terrified of how Jacob would react if she did. Jacob was a U.S. citizen, and he used Anna’s undocumented status to control her, threatening her with deportation if she left him. She was also financially dependent on him.

Eventually, Anna discovered that Jacob was having a second affair. When she confronted him about it, he became angry and beat her so severely that she needed emergency medical attention. This time, despite her fear of Jacob’s retaliation, Anna mustered up the courage and strength to call the police for help and then pressed charges against him.

Although she was finally away from her abuser, Anna still had a critical issue to deal with: how to resolve her immigration status issue. Through a referral from Laura’s House, Anna made her way to the Legal Aid Society of Orange County-Community Legal Services (LASOC-CLS) and was assisted by one of our specialized immigration attorneys. She and her children were protected by a criminal protective order. Because her husband is a citizen, LASOC-CLS was able to help Anna apply for legal status through a self-petition under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Anna’s VAWA application is pending, and she will likely be eligible to apply for a green card in 2019. As she awaits the outcome of her application, Anna is living an independent life with her children.

Anna is one of the many survivors of domestic violence whom LASOC-CLS can assist with immigration matters through our recently expanded immigration practice. As we celebrate our sixtieth year, LASOC-CLS continues to serve the community through our response to the current and changing needs of those who seek legal assistance, like Anna. With the expansion of critical practice areas like immigration law, and our commitment to provide trauma-informed legal services, LASOC-CLS is engaged in cultivating the growth and evolution of our firm and how we can better serve our clients.

Today, with a dedicated Immigration Unit, we affirm our mission to serve the vulnerable in high-stakes issues such as domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, removal defense, and other immigration matters. As immigration needs increase in the communities we serve, and as they often intersect with our existing programs, the formation of a unit to address these critical issues became an obvious next step in our firm’s growth.

Undoubtedly, access to legal assistance is the greatest unmet need of immigrants who are victims of violence. Victims of intimate-partner violence often navigate the family law system with little to no assistance to pursue relief related to divorce, child custody, visitation, and support. As was the case with Anna and Jacob, abusers often use their partner’s immigration status to control them. Low-income women who are economically dependent on an abusive partner are more likely to stay with their abuser if they feel they have no alternative options. Some immigrants, particularly undocumented individuals, are often afraid to report acts of domestic violence to authorities out of fear it will affect their family’s immigration status. This means they stay in abusive relationships, repeatedly experiencing both physical and psychological trauma. If the couple has children, this trauma extends to them, as well.

As a trauma-informed, public-interest law firm, we ensure that staff members understand trauma and its detrimental effects on the mental and physical health of our clients. It also means that we routinely examine all policies, procedures, and processes to ensure they are not likely to re-traumatize our clients. Moving forward, LASOC-CLS aims to become a national leader in providing trauma-informed legal services.

Historically, survivors of violence with immigration needs have had limited access to free legal representation to address those needs. If they were able to secure legal help, it is unlikely that those services were delivered in a manner that recognized the client’s trauma history or considered the myriad of potential legal issues experienced by immigrant survivors of violence. LASOC-CLS is not only integrating a trauma-informed perspective into our practice but also bridging the gap in services by the addition of the immigration component to our existing wrap-around services for survivors of domestic violence.

In 2016, LASOC-CLS received a grant from the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) to provide wrap-around legal services for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and trafficking in Orange County, including immigration relief available in the form of U nonimmigrant status (U visas), VAWA self-petitions, and T nonimmigrant status (T visas). The majority of the clients we serve under this grant are victims of domestic violence and their children. And, the bulk of the current immigration work is for clients seeking U visas.

In the last two decades, Congress made significant changes to U.S. immigration law to offer protections for immigrant victims of domestic violence and other crimes. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 included provisions that allow immigrants who have suffered domestic violence at the hands of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse or parent to obtain immigration relief without the participation of their abuser through a process called “self-petitioning.” In 2000, the passage of the Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act (VAWA 2000) created new forms of immigration relief available to immigrant victims of certain violent crimes (U Visas) and victims of human trafficking (T Visas) regardless of the immigration status of the perpetrator. Finally, the Violence Against Women Act of 2005 expanded these protections and included some victims of elder abuse.

Under VAWA, immigrant victims of domestic violence, child abuse, or elder abuse may “self-petition” for immigration status without the cooperation of an abusive spouse, parent, or adult child. They can also include their undocumented children on their petition. It allows the victim to file confidentially and obtain lawful permanent residence status without separating from the abuser. An approved VAWA self-petition gives the victim deferred action status, the ability to apply for work authorization, and eventually allows him or her to apply for lawful permanent residency. VAWA self-petitioners may also be eligible to receive certain government benefits to support themselves and their children.

The U Visa is available to victims of certain crimes (including domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault) who cooperate with law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense. Similarly, the T Visa is available to victims of severe forms of human trafficking if they assist law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of human trafficking. Upon approval, victims are given permission to live and work in the United States and eventually may be able to apply for lawful permanent residence if they meet certain criteria. Certain family members of U and T Visa applicants may be eligible to be included in the application. Additionally, in some cases U and T Visa applicants may be eligible for government benefits to support themselves and their children.

Since January 2017, LASOC-CLS has been awarded grants from the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) to assist clients with immigration matters. As such, the current scope of our immigration work includes assisting immigrants with naturalization, the aforementioned VAWA self-petitions and U visas, as well as I-90 renewals for employment, I-751 waivers, appeals to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Administrative Appeals Office, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, asylum, and removal defense.

We also recently received a Pro Bono Innovation Fund grant from the Legal Services Corporation and will be expanding current relationships, as well as creating new ones, with law firms and members of the private bar in the region. Collaborating with pro bono attorneys in the areas of immigration law cited—U visas, VAWA self-petitions, T visas, naturalizations—is a key component of our vision for our firm and how we can best serve and meet the needs of the most vulnerable amongst us in the county.

Sixty years ago, the lawyers of the Orange County Bar Association and an organization then known as Lawyers’ Wives came together to create the Legal Aid Society of Orange County to help those in need. In this sixtieth anniversary year, we have re-committed to serve our clients by continuing to evolve, develop, and direct our firm’s practice to meet the ever-evolving needs of our client community. Recognizing the demand for expanded services in areas like immigration and becoming a leader in the provision of trauma-informed legal services are significant components of our vision to remain ever relevant.

Kate Marr has served as Executive Director of Legal Aid Society of Orange County-Community Legal Services since January 2017. Before coming to Orange County, she spent 17 years as a public interest attorney specializing in domestic violence and immigration law, as well as medical legal partnerships.