Maui County announced this month that it will stop helping people complete immigration forms because staff members who recently received federal accreditation to process and review such documents have retired.
Starting Dec. 1, the county’s Immigration Services Division will maintain a supply of free immigration forms, but it will no longer assist people in filling them out.
The change puts at risk Maui residents who, for example, could lose their ability to hold a job if the paperwork to renew their green card status is denied due to clerical errors.
Maui immigration attorney Kevin Block said the reduction in free immigration services on the island could have broader effects on the community.
“You can just imagine if I’m a small business owner and my prized employee has a 10-year green card and that green card is expiring, I need him to have it renewed on time so he’s employment-eligible,” Block said. “And it’s all riding on him completing the paperwork correctly.”
“But it’s almost like the system is designed to cause people to fail because it’s tricky,” he added.
County staff won’t even help match people with the correct form starting next Wednesday, according to a county press release. Rather, people will need to request the documents they need by the form name and number.
“It would be like going to the DMV and saying, ‘What form do I need to register my car?’ and they hand it to you but can’t tell you anything about it,” Block said.
Maui is the only county government in Hawaii with offices devoted to helping immigrants apply for family-based petitions, maintain employment eligibility, renew permanent residency and apply for citizenship. Part of the Department of Housing and Human Concerns, the county’s Immigration Services Division is based in Wailuku with satellite offices in Lahaina, Molokai and Lanai.
The division is not staffed by lawyers and does not offer legal advice. But it has been a place where Maui residents can go for help in completing crucial paperwork that is often tedious, requires great attention to detail and is available only in English.
In February, staff members were accredited with “conditional approval” to process immigration applications, but those employees have since retired, according to a county press release. The county will not pursue accreditation for remaining employees, the press release states.
Maui County spokesman Brian Perry said he did not have any additional information about the changes regarding immigration services offered by the county other than what is included in the press release. He referred questions about accreditation to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Block, who served as director of the county’s Immigration Services Division from 2009 to 2014, said the division at that time served thousands of people a year.
Although the federal government requires non-lawyers to gain accreditation to offer legal immigration services, Block said the division was able to provide valuable advice without accreditation or a staff of attorneys.
“It was always kind of a gray area,” he said. “But we sort of skirted that for a long time by just offering advice that any advocate can give. We didn’t address whether someone was statutorily eligible or ineligible, we just scanned their forms and said, ‘Look, you forgot this here’ or ‘You need to include this $50 filing fee.’”
This kind of assistance could be critical to people who, in some cases, do not understand English and could face significant consequences for missing an application deadline or checking the wrong box on a form, Block said.
“It was a valuable service because if you do everything right, but you sent the check to Immigration instead of Homeland Security, they just send the whole thing back and say, ‘Your application was denied,’ and you don’t really know why or how to fix what you did wrong,” Block said.
“I think there’s going to be a large group of people who aren’t going to have any help until someone picks up the slack,” he added.
Maui Economic Opportunity CEO Debbie Cabebe said the nonprofit is not accredited to file paperwork on behalf of immigrants. But staff from its Enlace Hispano program help people in the Hispanic community complete immigration paperwork correctly and then guide them through the submission process.
“We aren’t an accredited organization and we’re not legal attorneys,” Cabebe said. “The way we get around that is we act as a third party. We don’t file (paperwork) for the individuals, we help them file for themselves, all the way up to creating an email address for them if they don’t have one so they can submit everything.”
Cabebe said she’s concerned that the termination of some county immigration services could create a gap in access to help for some Maui immigrants.
She said she doesn’t know of any similar programs for immigrants from non-Hispanic countries, such as citizens of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia — the Compacts of Free Association nations.
“In a lot of cases they can’t afford a lawyer and we can’t expect the immigration attorneys to do all the work for free,” Cabebe said. “If there’s a need, maybe we’ll become accredited.”
Maui County’s Immigrant Services Division will host a webinar to address its discontinuation of some immigrant benefit services at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 1. To participate, call 808-270-7791 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.
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