Northside nonprofit advocates for local immigrants, refugees through low-cost, pro bono legal services
The Christian Immigration Advocacy Center, headquartered in Pittsburgh’s Northside, can help clients with green cards, family reunification, and removal defense services.
By Jason Phox
Photo: Samuel and Sarah Smith give video testimony for the Christian Immigration Advocacy Center (CIAC). Samuel met Sarah in Uganda, where he was a former missionary, and says CIAC helped Sarah with her green card process after she married him. Courtesy of CIAC
Immigration today can be a challenge for those coming into the U.S. The Trump Administration, which will have cut back legal immigration by 49% by 2021, and the spread of COVID-19 have only increased people’s struggles to afford and handle the immigration process. However, the Christian Immigration Advocacy Center (CIAC), located in Pittsburgh’s Northside, has the goal to help. They provide low-cost and limited pro bono legal services to assist with the immigration process throughout the Pittsburgh region.
CIAC works with immigrant and refugee neighbors in Pittsburgh through immigration law. Executive Director of CIAC Ryan Driscoll claims that the organization aids 200 to 250 people a year with its services.
“We see a lot of the clients being relieved to work with an organization that will give them high quality service at a low rate,” said Driscoll. “Some of the people that come into our office deal with a lot of different services and we found that they enjoy our customer service and like how we take time with them to figure out their needs.”
CIAC offers several programs for clients to help with immigration services and other immigration law concerns.
“We hear quite a bit about how thankful our clients are for taking time to speak and value them. Our goal is to make them feel honored, so we’re thankful for our clients’ feedback,” Driscoll said.
The Sojourner Alliance program is designed for churches that desire to have an impact on their local immigrant communities. It provides resources to churches who want to build bridges into the immigrant and refugee communities by, according to CIAC’s website, serving as a client’s “advocate” at appointments and court hearings.
Churches in the program work to create an interlaced community with immigrants in local neighborhoods through virtual legal meetings with church volunteers, pro bono immigration legal training for Christian lawyers who represent churches in the program, and speaking engagements on immigration issues.
The second CIAC program, the Immigrant Legal Aid Fund, offers legal services such as obtaining and renewing a green card, filing for U.S. citizenship, family reunification, visas, asylum, and removal defense services.
The Immigrant Legal Aid Fund keeps the cost of legal representation low for immigrants of limited means. Churches and other donors donate to the program to help offset the expenses of providing low-cost and pro bono immigration legal services. The program seeks to serve 150-200 individuals per year, according to CIAC’s executive summary.
CIAC’s Removal Defense Project attempts to fill some of the legal gaps many of Pittsburgh’s immigrants deal with in court. These services, used when immigrants are facing deportation from the U.S., are offered pro bono at CIAC, and help them seek safety and security in the U.S.
While Driscoll said it officially opened in 2017, CIAC’s essence truly began in 2013 when Glenn Hanna, mission pastor from Allegheny Center Alliance Church (ACAC), wanted to better understand the practical needs of the refugee population in Pittsburgh’s Northside. ACAC’s leadership communicated a need for immigration legal services, and Hanna later desired to “share his love of Christianity” with Pittsburgh’s refugees and immigrants.
Organizations such as ACAC, the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh, Covenant Community Church, Christian Counselors Collaborative, Heinz Endowments, and the Pro Bono Center support CIAC’s work to provide immigration services at a low cost.
“We were started with the desire to serve refugees on the Northside, and …[people] who come to the United States as refugees, they struggle to make enough income to find adequate housing,” said Driscoll. “Often they come to the U.S. with nontransferable skills,” said Driscoll. “So, to enter a nation with a different skill set, it’s hard to find jobs that pay enough money. We feel it is important to us to use the nonprofit business model to work with grants and donations that help to keep our legal services low.”
Find more information about CIAC on their website at www.ciacpgh.org.