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Amid high demand, legal aid programs for immigrants get big funding boost

Immigrant rights advocates say Hawaii has a critical shortage of legal service providers to help low-income families fighting deportation or seeking asylum.
Published: May. 11, 2022 at 5:04 PM HST|Updated: May. 11, 2022 at 5:12 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Advocates say Hawaii has a critical shortage of legal service providers to help low-income families fighting deportation, seeking asylum or trying to reunite with relatives.

Now the state is offering more funding to fill the gap.

Data shows about 41% of Hawaii’s foreign-born population do not become U.S. citizens, which means many immigrants can’t afford legal representation and live in uncertainty.

Nonprofits that serve this population say more funding means more access.

Hiring an attorney can cost thousands of dollars, a big reason many immigrants avoid the process or take a risk by filling out forms themselves.

“It is a very technical area of law,” said attorney Esther Yoo.

“And if you don’t know why the government is asking those questions, people can get, make errors in that process, and seriously, sort of impair their chances at at getting lawful status.”

Yoo said helping people before they get to deportation proceedings can prevent a lot of pain.

“Some of them wait too long to apply for lawful status, they got caught up in the immigration legal system. And some of them do get deported, and separated from their US citizen children,” she said.

In the legislative session that just ended, lawmakers considered a bill appropriating funding to the Judiciary to contract with nonprofits for legal services.

It failed to pass ― and instead a line item was added to the budget.

“We were asking for $250,000 as part of the bill, but then they provided $1.2 million for low-income families to be represented. And part of that apparently was for immigrants,” said state Sen. Bennette Misalucha, part of the Filipino Caucus that introduced the original bill.

Advocates say the funding will help many hard-working families ― neighbors who form the backbone of Hawaii. “A lot of my clients are essential workers or nurses, they work in the tourism, hospitality industry,” Yoo said.

“They work on the agriculture, you know, in agriculture, on the farms. And these immigrants are very vital to Hawaii’s economy.”

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