Immigration Legal Services (ILS)

The Immigration Legal Services (ILS) initiative is a pilot program that would enhance existing legal services in Southwest Florida by offering immigrants legal assistance in areas where it currently does not exist.

ILS is both altruistic and economic. It is about ensuring the future sustainability of Southwest Florida’s economy and about welcoming eligible immigrants into the region’s communities.  With legal assistance scarce and widely dispersed, many immigrant residents lack the critical first step towards economic success.  The objective of this initiative is to assist and encourage immigrants to work to their full potential so that the diversifying Southwest Florida economy will flourish. Building sustainable communities that consist of stable families and a strong workforce is key to the long-term economic prosperity of the region.  Furthermore, the graying of the region’s workforce will result in a significant need for workers, a demand which can be filled by immigrant residents, according to Workforce Now, a 2016 regional research initiative.

ILS is a pilot program to supplement existing legal services and develop outreach capabilities by placing qualified immigration attorneys and accredited non-lawyer representatives in geographic locations where the need is the greatest. There is no substitute for dedicated, affordable, and knowledgeable immigration attorneys and legal assistants such as those who work for legal aid organizations. Unfortunately, access to such legal advice in the region is extremely limited.

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In the five-counties that comprise Southwest Florida, only two have legal aid offices that provide immigration legal services, often making it difficult for immigrants in the region needing help.  Furthermore, most immigration cases require several appointments.  Few attorneys are available for court appearances. Those agencies that receive federal funding are prohibited from assisting undocumented residents and those that can, are few and far between. The need is great to increase the numbers of legal aid immigration attorneys and thereby provide more opportunities for immigrants and their families to receive qualified legal assistance.

Southwest Florida will prosper with a strong immigrant workforce. Current and future job growth will be in industries where immigrants currently have a strong presence: construction, home health care, hospitality, “Main Street” small businesses and agriculture.

Immigrant workers are needed but the justice gap – the lack of access to legal services — in some of Southwest Florida’s rural, ethnic and low income communities is severe.  The gap is creating a burden on the immigrant population and on the region’s economy.

Finding a lawyer who is competent and affordable can be particularly difficult. Furthermore, the U.S. immigration system is complex and confusing.  Individuals could achieve legal immigration status if more plentiful and more effective resources were available to meet their needs.

Community leaders affiliated with the Southwest Florida Community Foundation and concerned with the worsening immigration justice gap in the region have developed these proposals and are supporting both ILS and El Camino: The Path.

The pilot ILS program will offer the services of an immigration lawyer working from offices provided by non-profit social service agencies located close to immigrant employment centers. The criteria to be used in developing and locating a pilot program include the following:

  1. Is there a population of immigrants with legal needs who live and/or work in the targeted area?
  2. Are there employers, with a large percentage of immigrant employees, who are interested in providing these employees with access to legal services?
  3. Is there a local agency such as the United Way House that would provide a venue for a legal services lawyer and provide referrals for those ineligible for pro bono or low cost services?

By having an immigration lawyer available “onsite,” local residents, employees and the companies in which they are employed will benefit.

Pilot program for one attorney $34,948; for a second, $55,000