Dykema Fellow to aid Michigan's immigrants

By John Minnis

Legal News

While controversy rages in Arizona about how to treat immigrants, Dykema has stepped up its pro bono representation of the most vulnerable among us: immigrant women and children.

The leading national firm headquartered in Detroit has created the Dykema Fellow to serve for two years as in-house counsel with the Michigan Immigration Rights Center. The fellowship is funded by Dykema and with matching funds from the Michigan State Bar Foundation's Access to Justice Fund.

"As a law firm with a long history of service to the communities in which we practice," said Rex Schlaybaugh, Dykema chairman and CEO, "our policy is to provide, where possible, focused and meaningful financial support to legal service providers that provide important pro bono services."

The Dykema Fellow will be one of two Equal Justice Works Americorps Legal Fellows placed at Legal Services of South Central Michigan, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal advice and representation to low-income individuals and senior citizens (regardless of income) in certain civil legal cases. LSSCM also funds programs elsewhere that support the entire state, including, most recently, the MIRC.

"This fellowship maintains and strengthens our relationship with LSSCM and its programs," Schlaybaugh said, "enabling our firm to combine charitable giving, pro bono support and long-term involvement with legal service opportunities."

Alluding to the Arizona controversy, Susan Reed, staff attorney with the MIRC, said, "I see this as really distant from what that conversation is all about. I hope there is nothing controversial about this."

At the MIRC, the Dykema Fellow - who will most likely be a woman since only female attorneys have applied - will represent immigrant women who are victims of domestic violence and immigrant children who are abandoned, unaccompanied, neglected or abused.

Often, immigrant women's spouses have citizenship or green cards, Reed explained. Abusive husbands use the wives' lack of legal status as a threat or means of control. The federal Violence Against Women Act, however, has provisions for abused women to seek legal status on their own.

"It's a complicated process," Reed said.

The Dykema Fellow will also work with immigrant victims of serious crime who are eligible for "U" visas. To be eligible, the immigrant must be a victim of rape, torture, trafficking, incest, domestic violence, sexual assault, abusive sexual contact, prostitution, sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation, hostage situations, peonage, false imprisonment, involuntary servitude, slave trade, kidnapping, abduction, unlawful criminal restraint, blackmail, extortion, manslaughter, murder, felonious assault, witness tampering, obstruction of justice, perjury or attempt, conspiracy or solicitation to commit any of the above mentioned crimes. The victims must also assist in the investigation and prosecution of the crimes.

Abandoned and abused immigrant children will fall under the Dykema Fellow's caseload. Dykema's ongoing relationship with MIRC has enabled the firm to represent unaccompanied children who have been abused, neglected or trafficked. Without the support of MIRC and the legal representation of the private bar, these children would face significant and complicated legal obstacles.

Such matters require specialized training and knowledge, and the Dykema Fellow will expand MIRC's capacity to mentor other members of the private bar to serve immigrant children and victims of crime.

"The Dykema Fellow will further help MIRC close a chronic justice gap," said Heidi Naasko, Dykema pro bono counsel. "Our firm attorneys have volunteered to address the legal needs of this extremely vulnerable population in partnership with MIRC. We are pleased to sponsor the Dykema Fellow, which will be a significant addition to our and MIRC's efforts to help those deserving clients."

The second Equal Justice Works Americorps Legal Fellow will work on immigration integration.

Reed said immigrants, including refugees who are allowed to come to the United States, face many obstacles to naturalization.

"Sometimes there are really long delays for folks we've admitted as refugees," she said.

Reed said she has from Aug. 1 to Sept. 15 to fill the two Equal Justice Works Americorps Legal Fellowships, including the Dykema Fellow.

Published: Wed, Jul 28, 2010