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Legal services that keep vigil with clients and keep hope alive

“So here we are. We take these cases, manage and follow them, and hope for the day that they move forward – so that we can celebrate with clients when they finally do reunite after years of doubt, frustration, and separation.”

Family Immigration Services at Catholic Charities aims to reunify families through legal immigration services, and helps clients navigate the complex immigration system, oftentimes with years-long waits to move cases forward.

Immigration in the United States is a complex and challenging topic to unpack – and to find yourself navigating. At Catholic Charities, our immigration legal services support family reunification and pathways to citizenship, with services that support changes of status and bring families back together.

Our clients range from entrants resettling in the US to find themselves now navigating legal their legal status to DACA recipients living and working most of their lives in this country. We help those pursuing permanent lawful status (commonly known as green cards) and those pursuing citizenship. And at the core of our work we’re reunifying families helping relatives who hope to again live near or with their parents, siblings, spouse, and children.

Amidst strained perceptions, charged politics, and the media headlines stand the real men, women, and children who are faithfully, and slowly, working their way through the legal immigration process. A process fraught with applications, revisions, document collection, traveling to appointments, waiting on the mail, long wait times, hope, disappointment, and progress – while day-to-day life of work and caring for their families goes on.

The biggest challenge? Even when things work just as they were designed to – the burden of the system is often laid upon the backs of those pursuing justice.

Earlier this year, Tomás* came to our Family Immigration Services office, having just moved to Missouri from Illinois, to transfer his petition to reunite his siblings in the U.S. Tomás is a U.S. citizen, seeking the help of DOJ Accredited Representatives at Catholic Charities to ensure everything is in his case is working its way through the legal system.

The thing is, he’s been working his way through this system for the past 23 years. Tomás first filed his sibling petitions hoping to reunite with his three sisters back in 2001.

“We have a perception that the immigration system works when it’s used properly, “ DOJ Accredited Representative, Marissa Flores Madden said, “And it’s true that it is passable – there just may be a twenty-four-year-long wait for a case to work all the way through the system, which surprises most people.”

Every U.S. citizen has the right to apply for green cards for siblings. And, when that right is exercised, it may one could expect the process to take more than a decade to work its way through the winding, complicated legal system. For some, like Tomás’s family, it may even be two decades.

“Tomás’s case is one of the ‘luckier’ situations if you could even put it that way,” Flores Madden continues, “for many families, their estranged spouses or siblings are facing extreme poverty, physical danger, or threats of violence – in this case, Tomás’s family is simply waiting, which is a blessing.”

But twenty-three years is a long time to wait, even when hope is on the horizon. When Tomás left his sisters, they were young adults and teenagers. Today, they are married, with children of their own. While these family members can be added to the existing petitions, the case itself isn’t moving yet, with no updates since intake here at Catholic Charities in August of 2023.

“Before I started working at Catholic Charities, I heard stories like this and thought ‘can you imagine waiting twenty-seven years?’ but it still seemed like a distant figure, a rarity,” Flores Madden shared.

In reality, it’s common.

In the U.S. immigration is primarily family-based, with other pathways to welcoming immigrants from other countries increasingly rare or challenging to obtain. Recent data tallies 66% of immigration cases composed of family reunification, the work that Catholic Charities participates in. 12% of visa requests relate to employment, 11% to refugee reception, and 11% are marked “other” – 5% of this category comprised of the Diversity Visa Program, a literal lottery of entrance for applicants that qualify and find themselves on the long waiting list.

 “When we’re forming our opinions about immigration, or even trying our best to learn about U.S. immigration law, these are the experiences that are often missing,” Flores Madden shared.

“This is one family’s story, but it mirrors thousands of stories,” she continued, “What I once thought was rare, I now know to be common.”

In light of this, Catholic Charities provides compassionate legal services, at low-cost to clients, accompanying them as their petition works its way through system. We wait with them, often for years at a time, and advocate for immigration law reform that alleviates separation and suffering.

Overhauling and resolving this entire system? Highly unlikely. Accompanying those seeking justice within the system? That, we can do.

“So here we are,” Flores Madden said, “We take these cases, manage and follow them, and hope for the day that they move forward so that we can celebrate with clients when they finally do reunite after years of doubt, frustration, and separation.”

“We’re keeping vigil with them, and keeping their hope alive,” she concluded.