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Defending Vulnerable Populations with help from Sisters and Brothers

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal 

By Patricia Zapor 

As an outgrowth of Catholic social teachings that calls for the caring of migrants, support for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC) comes in different forms. The organization is the nation’s largest network of nonprofits that offer free or low-cost immigration legal assistance. While CLINIC receives monetary support from major foundations, it receives just as much psychological backup from small, individual, contributions – Sister Mary’s prayers and her monthly $25 checks.

Since its founding by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (then known as the U.S. Catholic Conference) in 1988, CLINIC been the source of training and institutional support to 300 nonprofits that offer free or low-cost immigration legal services. The network consists of Catholic diocesan social service agencies, often called Catholic Charities, as well as other faith-based entities and secular community organizations throughout the U.S. With the election in November of a president who is following up on campaign promises to dramatically change immigration law and policy, CLINIC has been adapting the focus of its everyday work while looking to fund staggering new demands for immigration legal services.

CLINIC’s primary work is to teach agency staff about immigration law, both the basics and the ever-changing details. The organization also provides technical support for managing such agencies; engages in and advises on law and policy advocacy at the federal, state and local levels; offers legal representation to immigrant religious workers; coordinates some pro-bono appeals and operates a variety of projects including citizenship and legalization efforts.

“Many people don’t realize that being in the country without permission is not a crime, but a civil violation,” says Jeanne Atkinson, CLINIC’s Executive Director. “Poor people accused of most immigration violations – unlike those accused of crimes – do not have the services of an attorney provided for them. They are entitled to legal representation, but at their own expense. Studies show that people with legal representation are much more likely to get a favorable outcome in immigration courts. Millions of immigrants could benefit from high quality legal advice, but cannot afford it. That’s why so many churches – of various denominations — do what they can to provide this service.”

Since the organization’s creation, CLINIC has navigated an ever-shifting landscape of sources of funding. A small portion of CLINIC’s revenue comes from fees paid by nonprofits to belong to the network. The majority of funding for CLINIC comes from private foundations and contributions from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops with the balance made up of fees paid by nonprofits, services fees and federal contracts. Since its founding, a continuing portion of CLINIC’s financial support has come at the most basic level, regular, small-amount checks sent in by individuals who value its work, grassroots backing of funders like Sister Mary, along with moral and spiritual support.

 “Each month we receive $10 and $25 checks from supporters such as nuns, who have barely any expendable income, but who want to do what they can to ensure that someone is working on behalf of immigrants,” says Atkinson. “While we also have wealthier benefactors and foundations that finance our operations, we never forget that the Sisters and Brothers are counting on us to use their donations wisely. It really does temper how we spend our money.”

A significant portion of CLINIC’s revenue flows through to the organizations that do the hands-on work with immigrants. About $25 million since 1993 has gone through CLINIC to specific projects. For example, the CLINIC Fellows program used donations in 2015 to provide immigration legal representatives in areas of the southeast where immigration attorneys are few and far between. The region is home to an estimated 1.8 million undocumented immigrants. Yet at the start of the CLINIC Fellows, there were only 158 legal service providers – one for every 11,582 undocumented immigrants.

The CLINIC Fellows funding enabled the placement of legal representatives in 12 locations, stretching from North Carolina to Florida and Louisiana. The positions were fully funded for the first year, are funded at 50 percent in the second year and will be expected to rely completely on local funding in the third year and onward. CLINIC’s Fellows coordinator works with the agencies to provide support in advocacy, training, and technical assistance, such as in securing funding from local sources and foundations. In its first year, more than 17,000 people got assistance from CLINIC Fellows.

A generous anonymous donation enabled CLINIC to launch its Defending Vulnerable Populations Project this year. It will focus on training legal representatives to help bolster the availability of legal services nationwide. The next step will be to help the members of the CLINIC network find the funding to ramp up staffing to meet the needs of millions of immigrants.

As a new administration works toward sweeping immigration changes, CLINIC and its affiliates are gearing up to help ensure immigrants have access to trained legal representatives. That will take a lot of prayers and support from all those Sisters and Brothers.


Patricia Zapor is the Communications Director for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. She oversees functions including: working with reporters, managing press releases and public statements; producing materials including issue backgrounders, conference programs, press releases and CLINIC’s annual report; and supervising the CLINIC web page and social media. Zapor previously worked as federal government reporter for Catholic News Service, covering immigration extensively for more than two decades. 

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