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Lee County Legal Aid Society expands immigration law outreach

Three-year, $490K federal grant to focus on pathway to citizenship for abused, neglected and abandoned youth, including those aging out of foster care

A Fort Myers-based nonprofit that provides free civil legal aid to indigent residents of Lee County is expanding its efforts to assist immigrant children and teens, including those who are abandoned, entered the country alone, or are victims of human trafficking.

The new Lee County Legal Aid Society program focuses on establishing a pathway to legal citizenship for abused, neglected and abandoned youth under age 18.

The three-year effort, which began in late 2022, is funded by a federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grant of roughly $490,000 administered by the United Way of Lee, Hendry, and Glades Counties.

“Through no fault of their own, far too many children and teens from other countries wind up in our community with no adults in their lives, and with nowhere else to turn,” said Lee County Legal Aid Society Executive Director Andrew Banyai. “Some have aged out of the foster care system or were brought here under tragic circumstances by human traffickers. This new effort provides these youth with the opportunity to legally live, work and study in the U.S., strengthening our community’s fabric while also bolstering our economy and quality of life.”

More than 100 individuals have benefitted from the program since its start, including 18-year-old Wilson, who came to this country three years ago as an unaccompanied runaway from Guatemala who was placed in foster care after running away from a Florida Department of Children and Families facility.

The pathway to legal citizenship begins with a petition for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) from Family Court, followed by an I-360 SIJS petition to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Once awarded, applicants can apply for an adjustment of status (I-485) to lawful permanent residency, allowing those clients to apply for a work permit and Social Security card.

“Wilson now has lawful status as a Special Immigrant Juvenile, can legally work in this country and has a clear pathway to becoming a lawful, permanent and productive resident of our community,” Banyai said.

Community partners are critical to the program’s success, he added, citing the Guardian ad Litem 20th Judicial Circuit; United Way of Lee, Hendry and Glades; Florida Department of Children and Families Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Venice, and more.

“This new focus on ensuring access to justice for some of our community’s youngest and most vulnerable members wouldn’t be possible without the robust support of our community partners,” said Banyai. “We’re grateful for those collaborative efforts — broad public awareness is absolutely critical to making these services available to as many eligible recipients as possible.”

As with Lee County Legal Aid Society’s other programs that pair in-house attorneys with eligible clients, an income eligibility determination is made for prospective recipients. For more information, visit www.leecountylegalaid.org or call 239-334-6118.

About Lee County Legal Aid Society

Founded in 1967, Lee County Legal Aid Society is a private, nonprofit organization that provides no-cost civil legal aid to low-income residents of Lee County. The organization helps narrow the access to justice gap among those who cannot afford a private attorney in civil cases. In partnership with the Lee County Clerk of the Court, Lee County Legal Aid Society offers free, 20-minute “self-help” legal clinics that pair attorneys in private practice with those in need of legal services. Unlike in criminal law, there is no Constitutional right to counsel in civil law, which includes landlord-tenant disputes, foreclosures, evictions, probate, debt collection, child custody cases, domestic violence orders of protection and more. . For more information, visit www.leecountylegalaid.org or call (239)-334-6118

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