Immigrant and Refugee Law Center provides legal help for Cincinnati's most vulnerable families

CINCINNATI -- A new initiative based out of a K-8 school is providing free legal help to some of Cincinnati Public Schools' most vulnerable families: Immigrants and refugees. 

"We have a need," Antonio Fernandez, director of Roberts Padeia Academy's Welcome Center, said. "The community has a need."

The Roberts Padeia community comprises migrant families from Africa, Europe and the Spanish-speaking world in addition to those who are native United States citizens. Diversity makes the school a "unique and special place," Fernandez said, but it also provides an acute look at the hardship non-native students and their families can face in the United States.

Much of that hardship is legal, Immigrant and Refugee Law Center executive director Julie Lemaster said.

"I think for any of us, the legal system is one of the most difficult things to deal with and the scariest to deal with," she said.

For people whose ability to remain in the country is contingent on the right paperwork, that fear can be even more intense. 

Families that enter the country through legal means might struggle to afford or understand the next steps they need to take, such as applying for citizenship, green cards or asylum. Migrants with limited English skills might have a difficult time reporting that they have been victims of crime. Much of the time, they are simply unable to afford a full-time attorney.

"Language can be an issue," Lemaster said. "Money is obviously one of the biggest reasons that we started this non-profit law organization."

The Immigrant and Refugee Law Center, which operates out of Roberts Padeia's Welcome Center, provides that help for free. It can also help clients with other problems common to entering a new country, such as finding a job or a new place to live.

The center opened in February and has quietly served over 100 families in that time, Lemaster said. As the United States' government pursues a much stricter immigration policies than in years past, restricting travel from some countries, attempting to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and changing the regulations surrounding certain visa types, she considers it a victory just to get each client through the door.

"It is very difficult, especially these days, for people in these communities to be able to trust people," she said.

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