Immigrant Legal Center: New Name, Same Mission

“We decided to choose a more descriptive name that would make it easier for our clients and the community to know who we are and what exactly it is that we do,” said Emiliano Lerda, Executive Director of the Immigrant Legal Center (ILC), formerly known as Justice for our Neighbors (JFON).

Though the name has changed, Lerda said the mission will not. The ILC is focused on helping low-income immigrants who cannot afford legal representation with humanitarian-based immigration legal services and family-based immigration legal services.

He said they do not work with employment-based immigration issues.

In addition to the new name, the Immigrant Legal Center has moved to a new location that will provide easier access to people all over the city, from South Omaha and Benson to North Omaha.

Situated at 42nd and Center Streets, Lerda said the new building is more centrally located. And there is a lot of public transportation available on both streets.

“We needed to find a bigger space because our organization has seen significant growth in the last three or four years,” he said.

For the ILC, another big benefit of the new building is it gives them the opportunity to rent or lease their extra space to other organizations. By doing that, the ILC can generate an additional revenue stream, making them more sustainable for the future.

Right now, Lerda said uncertainty and fear top the list of issues for clients coming in.

“For example, a young immigrant who has DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), they don’t know whether congress will pass legislation to give them status or if they will have to take more extreme measures to move somewhere else, to a country they have never been to,” he said.

The Immigrant Legal Center is also seeing specific individuals who want to help family members to navigate the maze of the immigration legal system.

“They want to figure out a way to help a relative or loved one adjust and stop living in fear,” said Lerda.

Fear is a big issue; the fear of enforcement even if someone is a good family person. Lerda said even if someone isn’t a criminal, they fear they are in danger of being deported.

“And that fear prevents people from calling the police and reporting crime. So there are a lot of issues that come out of people being afraid,” he said.

Beyond uncertainty and fear, Lerda said immigrants are having to live with a heightened level of self-awareness, thinking about how they may be perceived as well as being aware of their surroundings.

“I am an immigrant as well and so I know we all have to face this and understand. Right now, we are living in a more volatile environment charged by negative rhetoric that is coming from a lot of our politicians. It’s unfortunate, but it’s something that people are keenly aware of,” said Lerda.

He explained immigrants must be extra careful so they do not become the victims of hate crimes or harassment. Lerda believes this is an issue that is coming and is real for a lot of immigrants.

“With congress and the political climate, it’s unpredictable on what may happen.  We keep hearing speculations about a possible DACA fix, but that is a roller coaster, going up and down, sometimes the conversation is positive and sometimes it’s negative. We can only hope that common sense will prevail,” he said.

Lerda feels it’s important that voters communicate the importance of immigrants in society, “They bring economic vitality and strengthen the social fabric of our community. These are not people that need to be alienated.”

He said welcoming immigrants and really appreciating them and giving them a platform to contribute to the community is the best course of action.

According to Lerda, ILC has seen an increase in the demand for educational presentations, both for immigrants and for those who work with immigrant populations.

He explained the presentations for the immigrant community focus on knowing their rights and how to prepare their families if they’re in danger of deportation. So for example, if an immigrant has children, they may need to name a power of attorney or temporarily delegate their parental rights to someone else.

“Presentations for non-immigrants help people working in education, churches and social services; people who may come across the immigrant community. These individuals mainly want to know how they can assist,” said Lerda.

For Lerda, it is an honor to work with and for individuals he personally admires. He explained immigrants are no different than the pioneers of this country. They have made many sacrifices and undertaken perilous journeys to get here.

“They sacrifice their own well-being for the promise of and the opportunity for a better future for their families,” he said.
Cheril Lee

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