By Alex Davidson
Staff attorneys at Richmond Hill's Liberty Center for Immigrants describe a climate of fear and confusion among the borough's immigrants who are trying to navigate the nation's new laws passed in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.
David Karran, a lawyer, former U.N. ambassador from Guyana and executive director of the organization, said immigrants' attitudes in Richmond Hill and beyond have gone from hopeful to anxious.
“There's a lot of concern. People are nervous; they are afraid,” said Karran, a Queens Village resident. “It is not the best time to be an immigrant.”
Karran and the other staff attorney, Dr. Dolly Hassan, run the center that serves immigrants from Guyana, Eastern Europe, Latin America and African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leon. A majority of its clients, Karran said, are from Richmond Hill's Caribbean and Guyanese populations, which he estimated number more than 200,000.
The Liberty Center began after Karran said he toured local Hindu and Islamic facilities to help them coordinate their interactions and relations with city residents and officials. He said he found during his visits that there was a need for a community-based organization to help immigrants gain the right to work, live and become citizens in the United States.
The center is at 125-09 Jamaica Ave.
But since Sept. 11, Hassan said, it has been difficult for the center to fulfill its mission of providing timely immigration services such as visas, green cards, asylum grants and work permits because the government has been delaying approval of such applications. She said this has taken away from the traditional hope for a better future that immigrants of past generations carried when they arrived in America.
“You don't hear about that anymore,” Hassan said of mass asylum grants the Bush Administration was proposing to give Mexican workers at the beginning of his presidency. “They (immigrants) are not even dreaming of it.”
Despite the challenges, Karran and Hassan, who is also a native of Guyana, has a doctorate in English and is a lawyer, still hold regular workshops to inform immigrants of their rights and obligations in America. Karran said the community-based center has reached out to local organizations to also offer marriage and domestic violence counseling and informational sessions on new immigration laws.
Karran said the center services between 50 to 60 cases on busy days. He said he has reached out beyond the initial religious groups to the Police Department and local elected officials to truly make his organization a community entity.
“We fill a community need in so many different ways,” said Karran, who attended a four-month session at the Police Academy to better understand the department's rules and regulations. “It has blossomed into a genuine community organization.”
The center also publishes a newsletter that offers timely information to its clients who come from as close as Queens to as far away as California. Hassan, who has also worked for the American Civil Liberties Union, said she and Karran work on a variety of immigration cases from people who either walk in to the building or just call on the phone from the city or other states.
Karran said because his organization is community-based, it has to deal with other, more personal problems experienced by immigrants. Hassan said several people have come into the center to ask about name changes to avoid potential federal persecution of people with Middle Eastern-sounding surnames.
Karran said he has seen several cases of immigrants who were defrauded of thousands of dollars because they were misled by fake immigration attorneys who took money but never came through with promised visas or citizenship applications.
“We try to make a difference in people's lives and the way they are living,” Karran said. “We do as much community work as possible.”
Hassan, a Richmond Hill resident, said she publishes immigration updates in ethnic newspapers targeted at the local Caribbean and Guyanese populations to inform them of their rights as immigrants. She said she makes sure she is in touch with city, state and federal agencies to stay informed on changes in immigration laws to best inform her clients and expedite their applications.
“Right now, we are having a serious problem getting timely immigration applications processed,” she said. “Everything just collapsed along with the Twin Towers.”
Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.