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As immigration services cut back, advocates worry

Services to prepare and review immigrant applications, other forms, discontinued

Local advocates are voicing concerns over “unintended consequences” as Maui County’s Immigrant Services Division scaled back assistance with federal legal immigration benefits this week.

On Wednesday, the division discontinued services for preparing and reviewing immigrant applications, forms and other documents due to division employee retirements, a move the county announced in a news release in November.

The office remains open and will have assistance limited to education, navigating the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, assistance with creating online accounts and providing paper applications upon request, according to the division office. However, applicants will have to know which application they need.

It’s a federal requirement that staff be accredited in order to process the paperwork, the county said. In February, the division received conditional approval by the federal government for recognition and accreditation to process the applications, but now those accredited employees have retired.

“The decision to forgo continued R&A (recognition and accreditation) status was based on guidance by Corporation Counsel after consideration of increased liability for the County in continuing to provide services to the public that are categorized by the federal government as legal representation,” said Lori Tsuhako, director of Housing and Human Concerns, the department that oversees the Immigrant Services Division.

Tsuhako added that the partial recognition and accreditation was granted based on the experience of two longtime employees who have since retired.

But some in the community are concerned over the loss of such a service.

“While we understand their reasoning, we are concerned about potential unintended consequences,” said Debbie Cabebe, CEO of Maui Economic Opportunity.

MEO offers the Enlace Hispano program, which provides services that include helping Hispanic residents find jobs, giving referrals and providing culturally sensitive integration services.

While it is “too soon to tell” if there will be more work for the nonprofit now that the county is scaling back, Cabebe said “we are closely monitoring the situation.”

She added that staff with MEO’s Enlace Hispano, or “Hispanic Link,” are not accredited to process the forms, but they “act as a facilitator connecting clients to services and providing interpretation and translation to minimize communication barriers between the client and service providers such as immigration services.”

Physical access to services is also a problem that residents on Neighbor Islands face. Maui immigration attorney Kevin Block said that on the Mainland there are U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices that one can easily drive to, “but in Hawaii, there is only one field office on Oahu.”

“You can’t just go there and get the forms,” he said of Neighbor Island residents.

Block was director of the county’s Immigration Services Division from 2009 to 2014. He said they did not give out legal advice at the division, but rather provided another set of eyes to look over the forms, which may be long and confusing.

“We just had expertise with the wide range of different forms and how they had to be filled out correctly,” he said.

Block added that those who need help could call the USCIS directly, but “it’s really difficult and time consuming.”

“They don’t really provide any advice,” he added.

He said people could go to the USCIS website to obtain forms as well as seek out accredited nonprofits for help.

According to the county, termination of immigration form services affects, but is not limited to: I-90 Renewal or Replacement of Permanent Resident “green” card, I-765 Application for Employment Authorization (EADs), I-130 Petition for Alien Relative and N-400 Application for Naturalization (Citizenship).

Assistance, but not preparing and reviewing, will be given for federal, state, county and nonprofit organization benefits (excluding benefits requiring legal advice), civil documents such as birth/marriage certificates and divorce decrees, renewing and replacing of passports, electronic I-94, courtesy document uploads for those without computer or printer access and referrals.

Tsuhako said that in fiscal year 2021, the Immigration Services Division assisted 675 people with USCIS applications to maintain lawful immigration status.

Tsuhako added that to help avoid immigration scams, the county’s Immigrant Services Division will encourage participants to seek assistance only through authorized legal service providers.

This includes the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii online portal (not the Maui office), immigration attorneys and other recognized/accredited organizations such as Catholic Charities of Hawaii and The Legal Clinic.

Recognized and accredited representatives by state can be found at www.justice.gov/eoir/recognized-organizations-and-accredited-representatives-roster-state-and-city.

The division said it never provided personal representation to a client beyond assistance with filling out and reviewing immigration benefit applications. It also did not process or adjudicate any application for an immigration benefit on behalf of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and USCIS.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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