Alicia Ortega works from her Omaha home Dec. 4. As a senior immigration specialist at Catholic Charities, she works with clients to determine their eligibility for immigration benefits and to help them apply for and obtain them. She also assists them in achieving legal status. ELIZABETH WELLS


Catholic Charities helps immigrants obtain benefits, achieve legal status

For 25 years, Jose lived in the shadows whenever he crossed the border into the United States from Mexico. But he had to work.

His family in Mexico “sometimes didn’t have money to eat or afford the necessities,” he explained through interpreter Connie Regan, who volunteers at the Mexican Consulate in Omaha.

“I was living like a ghost … being scared of everything, because without proper documentation you don’t exist,” he said.

In 2014 he got married in the U.S. and his wife convinced him to pursue legal immigration status through Catholic Charities as she had done. He saw the hope they had given her. Tired of fearing arrest and deportation, he contacted the Archdiocese of Omaha Catholic Charities’ Immigration Legal Services.

Each year, Catholic Charities helps about 650 clients like Jose, who are from up to 40 countries, said Jessica Bernal, senior director of program services and director of Immigration Legal Services for Catholic Charities. The majority of these clients are from Mexico, followed by El Salvador, Guatemala, Sudan, Myanmar and Iraq.

With offices in Omaha and Schuyler, a staff of six Department of Justice accredited representatives helps immigrants navigate the eligibility requirements and paperwork to obtain immigration benefits, which can lead to legal status, peace of mind and brighter futures.

Jose said he appreciates the way Catholic Charities staff treats people throughout the process of obtaining benefits and pursuing legal status.

“The respect they offer is very professional,” he said. “They call you. They send you letters to let you know how your case is going.”

A lot of people get frustrated and give up when they aren’t updated about their processes, he said.

He said he cried the day he learned they had successfully helped him obtain his I-929, a permit to work while waiting to receive his green card. “I’m not sure if it was excitement, but after 29 years, I didn’t know what to feel,” Jose said.

“If it wasn’t for (Catholic Charities) and my wife, I would be illegal for the rest of my life,” he said. But by gaining legal status, he rekindled his long-held dreams of someday opening his own restaurant.

The process, however, is not for the faint of heart.

“Usually there is high tension. People are afraid to seek help,” said Alicia Ortega, senior immigration specialist at Catholic Charities.

She said many immigrants have gotten bad advice before or suffered from others’ strong opinions and prejudices. And, she added, there is always the worry that by going public, they could be separated, by jail or deportation, from their families.

Catholic Charities’ representatives are not attorneys but, through extensive training in advocacy skills and the law, they possess sufficient understanding and knowledge to represent clients, Bernal said.

This could involve filing paperwork or appearing at court proceedings for someone seeking legal immigration, so that they obtain all available benefits for which they qualify, she said.

Catholic Charities staff determines eligibility and shares information with clients. Because every situation is different, honest answers about qualifications are important, said Ortega.

She believes this empowers clients like Josephine, who immigrated with her daughter in 2017 from Kenya to reunite with her husband, Phocas, who had immigrated four years earlier. She and her daughter needed help with Refugee Adjustment of Status, which allows them to get green cards while in the U.S. as refugees.

“We came with three suitcases holding just our clothes,” said Josephine. “I don’t know where I would have gone or applied. Because I came as a refugee, (Catholic Charities) applied for me for free. It was a relief.”

She said the cost of applying through an attorney would have been insurmountable, but Catholic Charities offers these services at significantly reduced fees or sometimes without cost for clients.

Ortega and Bernal said their work is rewarding because they help people reunite with their families, fulfill dreams of education, earn a living and, whenever possible, achieve citizenship.

They also see the life-changing effects of receiving legal immigration status for families like Nora’s. In 2001, Nora, her husband and two children came from Santiago, Chile, to the U.S. on a visa and stayed.

“I wanted to come so my children could get an education and pursue professional careers,” she said through her son Alberto’s translation.

For several years her family lacked legal status. To help them survive, she drove without a license and worked without proper documentation, but always feared being ticketed, jailed or deported.

She heard Catholic Charities had helped others apply for the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) immigration benefit. The DACA program offers work authorization and temporary protection from deportation for renewable two-year periods to certain individuals who were brought across the border as children and who are in the country illegally.

“I wanted that change (legal status) all my life,” said Nora.

Legal residence has opened doors for her family. Several years ago, Nora began working with Ortega to renew her children’s DACA status. Ortega was impressed by Nora’s hard work to give her children what they needed growing up, and how her children have made the most of their opportunities.

Paula, 29, earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing and biology, has become a U.S. citizen and is married with a six-month-old child. Alberto, 23, earned a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry. He is pursuing a career in medicine and continues his studies while preparing for the MCAT.

Alberto said he still has DACA status.

“It’s awesome, but at the same time, it’s definitely harder,” he said. “I can’t apply to any medical schools around here because of my status. There’s a couple of schools in California and New York that would consider me.”

Nora continues to work with Catholic Charities. In four years, she can apply for U.S. citizenship. She said she is grateful for her current legal status because it means she can drive and work without worry. She can also visit her family in Santiago, whereas previously she could not do so and return to the U.S.

“I’ve lived here in the U.S. for over 20 years. This is my country,” she said. “Everything in my life that has importance is here.”

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