Michigan Immigrant Rights Center opens West side office

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By Cynthia Price

In this era of  controversy over immigrants and immigration law, a small team of dedicated attorneys work from an office in Grand Rapids to be sure that the rights of those entering the U.S. are protected.

The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center plays a number of roles as a legal resource for immigrant communities in the state. According to its mission statements, “MIRC works to build a thriving Michigan where immigrant communities experience equity and belonging.”

Working mainly through granted funds, MIRC has expanded to include educating and training about immigrant law and immigrant rights; recruiting pro bono attorneys; promoting mutual respect between immigrants and the communities that receive them, including through a fairly new program called Welcoming Michigan; and representing individual clients in everything from naturalization to domestic violence matters.

Primarily through the work of Managing Attorney Susan Reed, MIRC?takes a leadership role in advocacy to advance the well-being and rights of low-income and other immigrants and builds coalitions among statewide organizations and agencies who work to serve this goal. Advocacy activities include tracking and analyzing legislation, and Reed is often called upon as a resource in Lansing, including testifying before legislators. 

MIRC is considered a program of the Michigan Statewide Advocacy Services and the Michigan Advocacy Program. (More about MIRC?can be accessed both through its own website, michiganimmigrant.org, and at miadvocacy.org, where visitors will find its annual and funding reports.)

The Grand Rapids office grew out of the Kalamazoo office. As Ana Raquel Devereaux, a supervising attorney working in the area of minor children, tells it, “I was a big part of that decision when my husband got a job at Cornerstone. I already had a lot of clients in Grand Rapids and so we used shared space so that I wouldn’t go to Kalamazoo as often. It was somewhat of an informal move at first.”

Staff Attorney Catherine Villanueva, whose focus is on victims of domestic violence and crime, said that the Grand Rapids office is good for her because almost all of her clients are in Kent County.

As the office grew out of its original home in a church, Hillary Scholten, who works with farmworkers including those in Muskegon, Ottawa and Oceana counties, joined the team; and in February Katrina Pradelski was added to the staff to work on the minor child program with Devereaux.

It is clear that all of these lawyers are passionate about their clients and the work of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

Devereaux started at MIRC in late 2014, working through a grant on unaccompanied children seeking asylum, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, and the T-visas that reflect someone who was trafficked into the U.S. (U-visas, which Villanueva covers, include becoming a trafficking victim after coming here.)

Raised in the Dominican Repub-

lic in a missionary family, Devereaux attended Calvin College, then went to law School at Wayne State already intending to be an immigration attorney, using the fluent Spanish she learned growing up.

Through her work with Bethany Christian Services in Kent County, as well as Samaritas on the east side, Devereaux has sought legal status for children in many circumstances. Because Bethany is the only agency in Michigan doing short-term foster care placements, Devereaux has been assisting with the headline-generating separated families. “For most of the separated children,” she says, “we ask them what their wishes are, and most of them said it was to be with their parents. So it depends on what options their parents have.” Devereaux says that when her clients leave Michigan, she tries to monitor their progress.

The June 20 presidential order which mandated family reunification be done only through eight immigration centers around the country means that now separated minors will not come to Michigan. Such rapid changes in the law  make for a challenging job. “There’s not a better time to be an immigration attorney, but there’s also not a more frustrating time,” Devereaux says.

Catherine Villanueva says that such challenges, which make immigration law incredibly complicated, are one of the reasons she feels MIRC?is so necessary.

Villanueva’s work takes its boundaries from the Victims of Crime Act; she focuses on immigration relief for victims, including those of domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as human trafficking. She points out that sometimes, with labor, victims are not even aware they’ve been trafficked; they just know they are suffering.

Villanueva went to Western Michigan University, then the University of Toledo College of Law, with a break between to develop her own business in Chicago and work for Samsung in South Korea. 

“People ask me if this isn’t really depressing work, but what keeps me going is that my clients are really strong people. At first, people who were victims of crime might be crying when I interview them or feel hopeless, but after I meet with them two or three times, you see the flicker of hope. They’re getting some power back in their lives,”

she says.

The Michigan State Bar Foundation and the Kellogg Foundation are the major source of funding for Hillary Scholten’s work with farmworkers, which includes employment law, sexual harassment, wage and hour complaints and some immigration benefits.

“We seek to protect the civil rights including employment rights of low-wage migrant and immigrant workers across the state,” Scholten says. “We serve immigrant farmworkers and migrant farmworkers who are disadvantaged by a number of factors, including the fact that they have to migrate in order to keep finding work. Under our system, they still do have rights – to be free from discrimination, to receive minimum wage if they’re employed, to not be victims of crime...”

Scholten graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 2012, and clerked in the Immigration Unit of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan, also  working as an accredited advisor through the Board of Immigration Appeals, assisting immigrants and refugees with a wide range of immigration legal needs.

Now, Scholten pursues class action cases and represents individual workers when there are infractions against their rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Agriculture Worker Protection Act, federal civil rights legislation, and Michigan’s Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act. 

Finally, the newest Grand Rapids office member, Katrina Pradelski, received her J.D. from Valparaiso University School of Law in 2015. She practiced immigration law in a nonprofit setting for three years before joining MIRC.

She also works with minors,  represent them in removal proceedings in immigration court, as well as before immigration agencies.

“I'm grateful to be at MIRC in [this] program. Working with these kids and being part of their story has been such a gratifying and humbling experience - to be part of the story of someone who will one day change the world is such a privilege,” she says.

 

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