Susie Monroe fled an abusive relationship with only a suitcase, an Xbox and her cat, Lynxx.
The Australian native had followed her heart and moved to Arizona, only to find out too late that the man she loved was not who he seemed. Although an offer of house sitting for a friend in Evansville gave her a safe place to escape, she arrived in Indiana with no money, no job, and an expired visa.
Monroe originally planned to get her green card while living in the Grand Canyon State and then leave her husband. She worked in secret so as not to suffer his wrath further, but, she said, her attorney bungled the request and she had to change her plans.
“I think in a situation like that, you’re in survival mode,” Monroe said, noting that she was unemployed, disconnected from her family and very isolated. “I look back on it now and I don’t know how I got out of it.”
His main motivation came from Lynxx. Fearing that if she was deported he would have to be left behind, she picked up the phone and began cold-calling immigration lawyers again. Eventually, she was referred to Indiana Legal Services, where her case was assigned to the Center for Immigrant Rights and Languages.
Comprised of a team of attorneys and paralegals, the legal aid agency division provides assistance to immigrants who are primarily seeking asylum or who have been the victim of a crime. The ILRC provides all services, gives advice and explains the process in the clients’ native languages, and is sensitive to cultural differences as well as the traumatic experiences that clients bring.
Kristin Garn, director of the center, said lawyers need to be insightful and identify when the client doesn’t understand what’s going on. Additionally, attorneys should realize that filing for legal status and appearing in immigration court can be a frustrating and frightening process for clients, who come from countries where the legal systems may be very different. .
“That’s maybe the skill of all poverty lawyers where you just have to make sure that you try again and again to explain things to clients and be extremely patient and answer all their questions,” Garn said. “We try to improve access to justice and empower clients, so we need to keep that mission in mind when tackling challenges with our clients.
For Monroe, the ILRC gave her the help she needed. Lawyers walked her through the process of getting her green card, updated her on developments, comforted her, and even offered to drive her to Indianapolis to attend his immigration hearing. Although Monroe eventually got her green card, she said she never lost her fear of something going wrong. Today, she continues to be grateful for the help she received, saying she cannot imagine what she would have faced without the ILRC.
“I don’t know what would have happened to me,” Monroe said.
The center receives about 35 requests a week from people asking for help, according to Morgan Robledo Cruz, a paralegal at the ILRC. The workload is such that lawyers and paralegals can take two to three weeks to review the documents, make a decision on whether to take the person on as a client, and then, for self-represented individuals , provide at least one letter offering some information and references to additional resources.
“I never realized how underserved and underrepresented they were and how difficult it was for them to be represented,” Robledo Cruz said of the immigrant community coming to the ILRC.
Once an immigrant becomes a client, establishing the lawyer-client relationship requires bridging language and cultural gaps. In addition, said Robledo Cruz, many people seeking legal help endured horrific situations, coming from drug and gang-torn countries where they lived in constant fear of being killed or dragged down an alley and raped.
Attorney Carolyn Caro Rodriguez recounted her work with a boy from Central America who had been so traumatized that the process to complete his application for special immigration status took six months. Before the first meeting, she contacted her therapist and pulled the reports from the Department of Children’s Services. When she sat down with him, she made sure he was comfortable and she spoke “like a real person and not like a lawyer”.
However, work progressed slowly. Having him tell his story over and over would make him relive his fear, usually ending in tears.
But the effort paid off. Last year, the young man had his application approved and hopes to be able to apply for a green card this year.
“It’s definitely very rewarding,” said Caro Rodriguez. “I met him when he was 14 and now he is an adult, ready to follow his dreams, go to university. It’s great to be able to help a minor become an adult and allow him to pursue his dreams .
The process of working through immigration courts and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can take years. ILRC clients like Monroe can never overcome their fear of being deported and separated from their families while they wait.
Unsurprisingly, Robledo Cruz said she treasures the moments when she has the opportunity to tell them their applications have been approved.
She starts by calling the customers and asking them if they want any news. Often clients react by preparing for the worst possible outcome, but when they learn that they have been approved for a visa or asylum, emotion overwhelms them and they scream with happiness or break into tears.
“The majority of our clients are so grateful for the opportunity they have, not only to have found a pro bono lawyer who cares, but also to have found a situation where they could safely deal with safety of their children and take care of themselves safely and just have a better chance of having a better future,” said Robledo Cruz.
These days, Monroe is based in Evansville and works nights at a shelter for victims of domestic violence, offering understanding and encouragement to those fleeing violence as she once did. Lynxx has since passed away, but she has adopted two homeless cats and enjoys getting to know them.
Additionally, on January 13, she traveled to Indianapolis and participated in the ceremony to become a naturalized citizen of the United States.
“I’m really lucky,” Monroe said. “I’m lucky to be here.” •