In the Fall of 2015, a number of donors and volunteers of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation concerned with the paucity of legal and other services and information available to the immigrants came together to address the problem. Dedicated community leaders, experienced experts in the field and volunteers, began two years ago what has become a regional initiative to provide a path to help immigrant families and workers stabilize their lives in Southwest Florida.
The economic viability of the Southwest Florida region depends on a stable, trained workforce. Immigrants are an increasingly important component of this workforce, and ultimately are a key factor in its future stability. Businesses uncertain about their workers cannot plan for future investment, expansion or new ventures. Disruption and uncertainty among the immigrant community threatens regional economic growth and prosperity. Furthermore, the area’s higher-age demographics require a pipeline of new workers.
The mission statement of the Land of Opportunity Fund and its supporters is both altruistic and economic. Grants from the fund will be used to ensure the future sustainability of Southwest Florida’s economy and to welcome eligible immigrants into the region’s communities. Building sustainable communities that consist of stable families and a strong workforce is key to the long-term economic prosperity of the region.
Many immigrant residents lack the critical first step towards economic success because effective and affordable legal assistance is scarce and widely dispersed,. In the five-county Southwest Florida region, legal aid offices which provide immigration services are only present in two of the five counties, Lee and Collier. While there exist some modest resources in the region to help address the housing, healthcare, employment and education needs of residents, access to legal services and processes related to immigration status issues remains a critical need in the region. No federal funds can be used to help “any alien” which means that many legal aid clinics in Southwest Florida cannot practice immigration law. No one at the present time is addressing this need in a regional way, which is why the Southwest Florida Community Foundation offered a meeting place for interested individuals who were studying this issue since 2015.
A number of community leaders affiliated with the Southwest Florida Community Foundation and concerned with the immigration justice gap in the region came together with two complementary ideas to help solve the immediate problem.
The U.S. immigration system is complex and confusing, but even within the existing laws and regulations, individuals can be helped to achieve legal immigration status if provided more effective resources. El Camino (The Path) is a web-based application that will provide legal guidance and instructional services for residents to pursue employment and permanent residency.
A second, complementary project –Immigration Legal Services (ILS)— supplements staffing support to place qualified attorneys and accredited non-lawyer practitioners in the geographic locations around the region where the need is the greatest.
Both of these ideas are outlined more fully in proposals that describe the research, approach, pilot project and budget.
The ultimate goal is to develop a $5 million Land of Opportunity Fund to provide recurring grants to sustain nonprofits that provide a wide range of services to immigrants and to fund innovative future ideas to meet the needs of immigrants and the economy of Southwest Florida. The fund’s multi-donors will be the advisory board to consider grant applications.
Donors will match a donation of $50k or more with an additional $50k. The fund is administered by the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, (floridacommunity.com) which through assets contributed by donors, fosters regional change for the common good in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties.