Portland’s Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project serves a vital role for new Mainers
Before he and his family came to Portland in the summer of 2011, Leandre Habonimana was a civil rights lawyer in the Central African nation of Burundi. His work with the United Nations investigating war crimes made him a target of his own government. His bodyguard was murdered and a grenade was thrown into his house. He managed to get visas for himself,
his pregnant wife, and their three children to travel to the United States, ostensibly for a visit. Because Habonimana had a connection in
Portland, the family arrived here that August, and quickly made plans to stay. They left their country and everything they had ever known for a strange and unfamiliar place where they knew only that they would be safe.
Habonimana and his family are some of the hundreds of asylum seekers who have been helped by the Portland-based Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project (ILAP). Founded in 1993 and headquartered on the corner of Elm Street and Cumberland Avenue, ILAP serves low-income clients from more than 100 countries around the world, and is the only organization in the state that provides a full range of immigration legal services. In addition to the extraordinarily complex handling of asylum applications, these services include helping clients obtain green cards, permanent residency, and citizenship, as well as handling domestic violence issues and removal defense—the legal term for representing those in danger of deportation. ILAP employs three lawyers and two paralegals full time, but most of the asylum work is done pro bono, through a network of 140 volunteer attorneys who receive special training in asylum law. In 2015, these attorneys donated more than 4,000 hours of time, valued at $928,000, which exceeds ILAP’s roughly $740,000 budget, according to executive director Sue Roche.
Roche joined ILAP in 2000, shortly after she graduated from Northeastern University School of Law, and has served as director for the last three years. “I had always wanted to do something where I could help people who wouldn’t otherwise have a lawyer, recognizing that the legal system only really works if everybody has representation,” she says. “In immigration, unlike criminal law, you don’t get an attorney provided to you, and it’s one of the most complex areas of law.”
I met with Roche, a thoughtful woman with an easy smile and a calming presence, in September, when the organization takes a break from scheduling new intake appointments for staff to catch up on their already substantial caseloads. She patiently explained the difference between asylum seekers and refugees, terms many people— including me before our interview—mistakenly use interchangeably. “The asylum process is very different from the refugee process, although they’re both coming from countries where they have been persecuted by their governments, or fear persecution,” she says. “Refugees typically flee in large groups when there is a big civil war going on. The U.N. sets up refugee camps, and many times people just live there for years; some get to be resettled in other countries. They arrive here and they already have legal status; that makes them eligible to work and get certain benefits. Asylum seekers are usually not fleeing in large groups, and you can’t apply for asylum until you leave your country, so many times people will come on a visitor visa.”
Visitors can’t work legally, although the asylum seekers ILAP assists are all eager to do so, says Roche. “That’s what we see time after time with the clients who come through our doors—they just want to give back to the community. They want to have a good life for themselves and their families, and they have so much to offer.”
Portland attorney Leslie Silverstein, who worked with Habonimana and his family, bristles at any suggestion that Maine’s immigrants are not determined to work. “Every single asylum case I’ve ever had, the day they get their work permit, they have one, two, or three jobs,” she says. “It’s their happiest day when their work permit comes in.”
A disability lawyer who has handled numerous asylum cases as one of ILAP’s volunteer attorneys, Silverstein was a recipient of
the American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Publico Award in 2015—one of five honorees nationwide, and the only one with a solo practice. After reading the novel Little Bee, which tells the story of a young Nigerian girl in a British detention center, she says she “became obsessed” with immigration work. “You feel like you can’t lose; it’s people’s lives.”
Silverstein’s already expressive, friendly face lights up even more when she tells me “an intense story” about her first case for ILAP, representing a woman from Central Africa who had been a counselor specializing in working with rape victims. After the government threatened her and her family, she fled to the United States; her husband arrived two years later, but their four children were left behind, in hiding. Silverstein, who had been working with the couple, got word that the children were coming to join their parents, and helped raise the money to fly them from Africa to Chicago. She accompanied the mother to
Chicago O’Hare International Airport to meet them. “We’re waiting for those ridiculous doors to open; people keep going through, and I start asking questions because they don’t seem to be coming,” Silverstein says, who feared the children had been grabbed en route and taken to a detention center. “As I turn to ask an official where the immigration office was, I heard by client scream, ‘they’re here!’ This was almost four years ago, and I still tear up thinking about it.”
At the cozy office she shares with her husband, criminal defense attorney Phil Notis, on the corner of Newbury and India streets, Silverstein introduces me to Habonimana, a soft-spoken man with a gentle smile. He was her second ILAP client, and the mutual admiration between the two of them is immediately clear.
“It’s hard to find the words; she’s just the best,” Habonimana says. “First of all, the way she helped me on my immigration case—she did it like a friend. She didn’t only help me to send my file, she’s the one who helped me to have a nice apartment here. She’s the one who has been beside me in everything.”
As an attorney himself, Habonimana had worked on his application for about eight months before being referred to ILAP. “Every case comes down to credibility,” says Silverstein. “Even if it’s an incorrect date that’s seemingly insignificant, you can lose. We could be drafting together, he’d be sitting next to me and say, ‘no, change that word.’ I was so fortunate to work with him.”
Having been granted legal status in 2014, Habonimana is now employed as a team leader at Florence House, the women’s homeless shelter operated by Preble Street, while his wife, Concilie Nahayo, assists developmentally disabled adults as a Direct Support Professional. Their oldest child, 18-year-old Milly, is a freshman at the University of Southern Maine. Fourteen-year-old Perla is a student at Waynflete School, and Pauli, 10, is at Reiche Elementary School, where four-year-old Jayce will be a kindergartener next fall.
Habonimana’s eventual goal is to go to law school and take the bar so he can once again practice law. For now, he volunteers his legal expertise to help other immigrants through the local chapter of Justice For Our Neighbors, a national initiative of the United Methodist Church, and Pine Tree Legal Assistance. “I feel I need to help other people,” he says. “Those who are seeking asylum are really in stress. Especially those who left their families in their home country.”
The need for ILAP’s services continues to expand, and not just in Portland. The organization has a small, satellite operation
in Lewiston and another in Milbridge, a central location for migrant workers during the blueberry harvest. The organization hopes to build more of a presence in both locations.
A recently completed strategic planning initiative has helped ILAP identify where to focus its limited resources. “Continuing to serve all of our clients in addition to the asylum community is one of the challenges we face,” says Roche. “Trying to figure out how to serve large groups of people who have this complex legal need—we will never have enough attorneys to help everyone—so we are continuously trying to be creative.”
Because Maine’s population is so small, Roche believes the state has a unique opportunity to be a role model for the rest of the country on immigration issues. “I think when people actually interact, whether it’s as colleagues, neighbors, or their kids are in school together that people really start changing their minds,” she says. “It’s when they get that ‘this is another human being that has the same hopes and dreams that I have,’ that we’re going to have a better community of people who work together.’”
Lawyers from two vastly different worlds now living in the same city, Silverstein and Habonimana offer a perfect example of ILAP’s powerful mission. “You can go to law school, and we can practice law together, and save the world together,” she tells him. “One person at a time.”