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Haitians in Connecticut need more legal aid, advocates say

IRIS staffers Tabitha Sookdeo (left) and Ann O’Brien with Ibrahim as he crosses the threshold of the apartment found for him by volunteer sponsors, hours after arriving in America.
Provided by Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services
IRIS staffers Tabitha Sookdeo (left) and Ann O’Brien with Ibrahim as he crosses the threshold of the apartment found for him by volunteer sponsors, hours after arriving in America.

Haitians in Connecticut seeking out a social security card often need someone who can also speak Haitian Creole to navigate a complex immigration system.

“It can only be done quickly, with the help of somebody who is knowledgeable,” said Ann O’Brien, the director of sponsorships at Integrated Refugees and Immigrant Services.

Getting help is hard enough; finding someone who can actually communicate with them is even harder.

IRIS helps immigrants with wrap-around services including legal representation. But O’Brien said Haitians face unique challenges — everything from a lack of available staffers speaking Haitian Creole, to a relative lack of federal funds for legal aid compared to other nationalities.

Since 2021, many Haitians have arrived in the U.S. following the assassinatation of the country's president and a steady breakdown of public order that has compounded with long-running economic inequality, which was partly shaped by U.S. interference. Advocates are now looking to the federal government for help.

Rachel Kornfeld is the CEO of Jewish Family Services of Greenwich and she said her organization, which also helps migrants, has aided around 120 Haitians in the past year.

But they have to make do with their own funds to help them.

“We receive zero state or federal funding for our legal services, so every penny is coming from private resources that we raise as community nonprofits,” Kornfeld said.

More migrants are now coming to the U.S. over the past few years and some have been resettled in Connecticut, either sponsored by families, or pleading for asylum at the U.S.- Mexico border.

In early April, Kornfeld met with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy at a roundtable discussion with Haitian Americans in Stamford.

She wants the federal government to help, as they say the relative lack of aid for Haitians puts asylum seekers at a disadvantage, from relying on private legal aid which in some cases, could delay filings.

Part of the problem, according to advocates, is that the United States has moved relatively quickly to help Afghans and Ukrainians due to direct U.S. involvement in their home countries.

Migrants from those conflict zones have been given special immigration status priority, but advocates said Haitians are part of four nationalities able to come on a humanitarian parole program, but make do with less aid.

Although the U.S. has historically occupied and later meddled in Haitian politics in ways that continue to impact the country.

When Haitians do come over, Kornfeld said many don’t have knowledge of immigration law because of the relative lack of communication available to them.

“They simply don't have the understanding or knowledge, because they weren't able to speak to somebody knowledgeable in this area,” Kornfeld said.

Some clients end up needing help nearly at the last minute in order to keep their statuses according to the supervising attorney for Jewish Family Services, Christopher Kelley. Many of them live in Bridgeport, Stamford and Stratford.

Murphy’s office did not offer any additional comments on advocating for more legal aid, but referenced a Senate subcommittee hearing over the security situation and his recent meeting in Stamford.

According to the state’s department of social services, at least 500 refugees and 193 special immigration visa holders have arrived so far this year, dating from October to March.

However, the numbers do not include Haitians, or Afghans and Ukrainians. The federal government has funded a little over $1.3 million dollars to help with refugee assistance.

Diana Revolus, the first Haitian American to be elected to the Norwalk city council, said one of the biggest challenges for Haitian asylum seekers is getting enough bilingual help.

“Language is a big problem. There's a lot of people who are helping, but they don't speak (Haitian) Creole,” Revolus said.

O’Brien, who works for IRIS, one of the four nonprofits contracted to help refugees in the state under the Refugee Assistance Program, said getting enough Haitian Creole speakers is a challenge.

IRIS ended up hiring a Haitian national, named Wesnel, who came through humanitarian parole after he said he fled Haiti fearing for his life after paying an extortion racket run by police. O’Brien said IRIS is assisting 159 Haitians, many of who live in New Haven, Hartford and across the state.

Wesnel did not want to use his full name, citing continued concerns for his physical safety. But he said IRIS’ reputation has spread among Haitians in the state.

“Some of them only asked for IRIS alone because of (word of mouth),” Wesnel said.

Because Wesnel came to the United States on humanitarian parole, he has not been able to apply for asylum yet, according to O’Brien. Humanitarian parole allows someone to temporarily stay in the country legally, but asylum would allow them to permanently stay.

Wesnel, who braved a journey from Haiti to Guatemala to Mexico, will face a different challenge once he seeks asylum.

“It's that second application process once they're here in the United States, that requires legal representation to even begin to do,” O’Brien said.

IRIS supplied a graph showing its helping more Haitians apply for sponsorships as opposed to asylum compared to two years ago.

Kelley said the increasing numbers of asylum-seekers and those being sponsored overall, are straining their capabilities. He referenced a listserv where attorneys who practice immigration law are finding it harder to refer clients to other attorneys.

“Some people aren't taking any new clients at all at this point, just because it's been so overwhelming,” Kelley said.

Like Revolus, Kelley said language barriers are a key issue. None of the legal staff at Jewish Family Services speak Haitian Creole. They make do with an online translation service, which he praised, but the service slows down the application process.

According to the American Immigration Lawyers Association, it takes between 50 to 75 hours to properly file an asylum application with experienced legal representation. Using the service makes the application process take twice as long according to him.

But while Kelley said more help is needed, he’s optimistic the federal government will step up.

“I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt that it's a bureaucratic hang-up or political. And it's just going to be a matter of time,” Kelley said.