Amid U.S. crisis, efforts afoot to assist immigrants locally

Sep. 02, 2014 @ 04:58 AM

While the immigration debate faces gridlock on Capitol Hill, some in Sanford are focusing on offering guidance and support for undocumented immigrants in Lee County.

Earlier this month, N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory estimated the number of unaccompanied, undocumented children in North Carolina at 1,200.

"We do have some, certainly, in Lee County," said the Rev. Robert Ippolito of St. Stephen Catholic Church, who is a Board of Immigration Appeals accredited representative. "I'm working on about five or six cases of one sort or another [involving unaccompanied immigrant children]."

Ippolito said unaccompanied often is a misnomer, and that any children who come to the border by themselves are considered unaccompanied even if they are coming to meet a parent or sibling. He said most children come from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

He also warned against painting immigrants with a broad brush, noting that circumstances often vary among cases. One case he is working on involves a mother whose 9-year-old son is a U.S. citizen. She is not, and neither is her 4-year-old daughter who faces a number of medical issues.

"The mother cannot stay here with those children unless we can prove something in this case that will give her relief from the court system," Ippolito said, "which would be based mainly on the daughter's health condition."

In another case Ippolito said was more typical, two brothers, age 14 and 16, came to Lee County to join their mother, who has been in the U.S. for 12 years. Ippolito said the brothers would qualify for Special Immigrant Juveniles Status, given to children under 18 who have been abused, abandoned or neglected by one of their parents.

"In this case, you have to go to a family court and get a judge to declare that it would not be in [the children's] best interest to return to their country of origin," Ippolito said.

As far as long-term legal means of addressing undocumented immigrants, Ippolito is dubious. He said President Barack Obama is expected to make an announcement deferring deportation of immigrants with family ties in the U.S., but that it would take congressional action to come up with a more comprehensive solution.

"It won't be anything permanent, because you can't do anything permanent without Congress," Ippolito said. "In the meantime, we can't do a whole lot, but we do our little piece of the puzzle here in Lee County."

To that end, the city of Sanford announced in July it is one of two North Carolina cities to win a Building Integrated Communities in-kind grant from UNC Chapel Hill, which will go to fund a citywide effort to create integration plans for foreign-born residents. The grant will provide support over the next two years with a needs assessment, planning and facilitating community workshops, surveying successful efforts in other communities and more.

Also, Ippolito said he has two lawyers who have agreed to work pro bono on immigration cases, and that he is trying to expand the resources available to immigrants in Lee County.

Bob Bridwell, former director of Sanford's Planning and Community Development Department, now serves as a minister at St. Stephen's, where he works with Ippolito and others to provide aid to immigrants.

"When we see people in need, we try to help them," Bridwell said. "We apply the law, but we still try to help."

Bridwell lamented the political grandstanding he says takes place when it comes to immigration reform.

"What they've done is they've taken a humanitarian crisis and turned it into a political issue," Bridwell said of Congress. "We need [a solution] that protects the borders and, at the same time, represents fairness and equity to the people and helps keep families together."

Ippolito expressed doubt that Congress would take definite action any time soon. Instead, he is focused on offering assistance at the local level in any way that he can.

"Our job is to service the people here," Ippolito said of his church. "I don't ask them why they came. They come in asking for help, and the response is to do what we can for them."