Philadelphia must safeguard immigrant legal services in its budget | Opinion

Love Park in Philadelphia (Photo via Flickr Commons)

By Lea Wanhi

This is a very hard time for Philadelphia, my beloved adopted home city.

As protesters raise their voices in the streets and as we shelter in our homes, unsure of when our children will be able to return to school without risk of transmitting COVID-19, our government must make decisions about how to spend money to support our communities in this difficult time.

As an immigrant and a Black woman with high hopes for a positive future, I hope that our elected representatives will remember one small but powerful program that keeps families like mine healthy and strong.

The Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project (PAIFUP) provides free legal representation for immigrants facing deportation, but it needs $200,000 from the City to continue helping people like me. Two years ago, I was in an immigration jail, fearful that I would be deported away from my son and back to a country where I would be killed.

My family in the Ivory Coast practices circumcision on all girls. After my older sister almost died from her circumcision, my mother decided this would not happen to me.

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She took me to stay with a friend. When I got older, my parents promised a man from my village who I did not know that I would marry him after he paid for my education. I did not want to go through with the marriage because he practices circumcision too. I decided to leave my village.

I got a job, met my current husband, and we had our son. But the man I was supposed to marry found me and tried to take me by force, injuring my infant son. We were terrified, but the police would not help because they respected the man’s traditional right to marry me.

I fled to the United States with my husband and son to seek protection and applied for asylum. While I was waiting for a response, my son had an accident and my husband and I were arrested.

Even though all charges against me were dropped, I was transferred to immigration jail and was detained for five months. With no money for a lawyer, I was afraid that I would never see my son again and that I would be killed in my home country. Then, one day, I was told there was a lawyer at the jail to see me.

That was the day I met my lawyer from the Nationalities Service Center (NSC). She came to the jail many times to prepare my case.

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Finally, we went before the judge and he granted me asylum. Now my family is back together. My son is healthy and in pre-kindergarten here in Philadelphia. I work as a cashier in a restaurant. Our lawyer won my husband’s case as well, and he is in school.

NSC is now part of PAIFUP, a new program that helps immigrants in detention. PAIFUP lawyers are helping people like me to get out of immigration jails and return to their families. But now, proposed budget cuts threaten to end this program and leave many immigrants and their families in a dangerous situation.

People around me in immigration jail said that if you don’t have money for a lawyer you can’t win your case. But my story proves that with help from programs like PAIFUP, even people who can’t afford to hire a lawyer can have a chance to reconstruct our lives and have hope for our families.

All immigrants facing deportation should have a lawyer — especially now, as COVID-19 makes immigration jails more frightening than ever. Our leaders in this City have choices to make about how to help communities like mine have hope for the future. Funding PAIFUP is one strong choice I hope they make.

Lea Wanhi is a resident of Philadelphia and a client of the Nationalities Service Center, one of the Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project (PAIFUP) legal service providers.