What's Next for SWIRC

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In the last post, we looked at SWIRC’s past, where we’ve been and the immense need for quality free and low-cost legal services in Detroit. We are the only one doing this who serves everyone.

Other providers have an area of law that they specialize in, or a particular demographic that they serve. Our clients are people who hear “no” or “you don’t qualify” or “we can’t help you” all the time. We set no barriers before our clients. When people visit the clinic, we ask them to sign in, and then we listen to what their issues are. In truth, there are some legal issues beyond our capacity or when what a client seeks isn’t realistic. But nine times out of ten we are able to help concretely and realistically. But even that 10th person gets a listening ear, good advice, and respect.  Everyone is welcomed in, is invited to tell their story and is taken seriously. This alone creates hope and restores dignity.

In the four year’s of SWIRC’s existence, the need for our services has grown, and we are working toward a place where we are ready to grow as well. We need to do more, and that means expanding our capacity to serve. How do we do that?  We’ve identified four areas.

Besides the hundreds of clients who have received “one and done” services at our free legal clinics, SWIRC is managing around 80 active cases at Detroit’s Immigration Court, Michigan’s Third Circuit Court and elsewhere. This is a lot for our small organization but barely scratches the surface of what we could be doing. Of the 4,000 active cases at Detroit’s Immigration Court, barely 20% have professional legal representation. Winning these cases is often nuanced and technical. No one should have to go before an immigration judge without representation.

One way to expand our presence is to offer a legal fellowship to newly graduated law students with an interest in immigration law.  The overwhelming majority of immigration lawyers represent wealthy persons seeking to immigrate or large companies and hospitals seeking skilled employees.  Very few paid positions exist, however, for persons wanting to help poor immigrants and refugees. By giving young lawyers experience, we hope to encourage persons to start organizations based on our model across the U.S.  It will also dramatically increase our capacity to represent immigration clients.

Secondly, we want to engage more religious and community groups in serving our client communities. This means developing a curriculum and organizing a network of people willing to step forward in radical hospitality to their immigrant neighbors.

Finally, we are in the process of refurbishing a large home in southwest Detroit that will serve as emergency housing for people in crisis, group housing for visiting service teams, and program and office space for us.

To achieve these dreams, we have started doing something new for SWIRC: asking our community to fund justice for marginalized people in the Detroit area. Our clinic programs and the legal representation that comes out of them, have been funded by partners like the Ford Fund, the Presbyterian Church and the Oakland County Bar Foundation. Their support has made our clinics possible but has not allowed space for organizational growth.

Growing our capacity and sustaining new programs means that we need to ask more of our community. We need your help, not just in donating your time and money, but also in telling others about SWIRC and our clients.

If you know someone who needs help and can’t afford an attorney, please send them our way.

If you know someone who wants to be a part of making our community a better place, tell them to contact us about volunteer opportunities.

If you believe as we do that the ideal of justice is for everyone, regardless of where a person comes from or how much money you have, then support our work. We can only do this together, and we need each one of you.

SWIRC is truly a grassroots organization.  We don’t employ fundraisers or focus groups.  Less than one percent of our budget has been spent on marketing or promotion.  We’ve never hosted a gala or golf outing--we’re too busy helping clients! We need you.  Can you help us by--making a donation today; sharing our work with your friends, relatives, and neighbors; inviting us to talk about the refugee crisis that exists in southeast Michigan at your faith community, club or school; or serving as a volunteer.   We need you. Please help us.

We've Come a Long Way

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The Southwest Detroit Immigrant and Refugee Center was founded in response to an urgent need in our community. When the then-currently largest provider of non-profit legal help shut down, they left few options in their place. Because of restrictions on federal funding, undocumented people had nowhere to turn for help. We wanted to offer an answer to that question of where people go for legal help when no one else would help them at a rate they could afford.

Kevin Piecuch, SWIRC’s Executive Director and principal attorney, opened our first free legal clinic in June 2015 at the Ford Resource and Engagement Center in southwest Detroit (a.k.a. “The Mercado”).  There we offered much more than a free consultation. From the beginning we performed real legal services: helping people with immigration forms, preparing wills, writing demand letters to those who would exploit our clients, all this and more took place at the Mercado.  The clinic also served as the front door for those who needed more than we could accomplish at the clinic. It was the first step toward gaining representation at a fraction of the cost charged by traditional attorneys. We wanted to provide quality legal services to those who could not afford them from conventional sources. We fought deportations, took dishonest vendors to court, prevented unfair evictions and helped families remain together. Clients came to us in desperation and frequently left with hope for their future.

In the years following we opened two more clinics, one in Pontiac and one on Detroit’s east side. Each clinic is intentionally located in a community that needs what we offer. These are among the most impoverished communities by household income in the in the Detroit area.  Thanks to these efforts, in Southwest Detroit and elsewhere, our reputation has spread, and more and more people recognize us as offering hope when they have no other options.

Our society works well for people who are familiar with the culture, who are well-educated, who know what their rights are and others accept that they have the right to assert them. This same system often fails our clients--people trapped in multi-generational cycles of poverty and oppression, immigrants just learning our culture and language, and refugees who have fled unspeakable dangers with only the possessions they could carry. When our society fails them, they come to us, and we help them.

We’ve mapped out an aggressive path forward, more on that in another post, and we want you to be a part of it. We believe this is a community issue. When people are taken advantage of in one part of the city, it keeps us all from experiencing the vibrant and safe Detroit area that we all want. No one of us, whether in the city or suburbs, is in this alone. We need our community’s support to make a difference for underserved communities in Detroit.

Right now, this means subscribing to emails from us, following us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Share our work with others you know who would be interested. We need to grow our community of supporters.

We also need more concrete support in the form of donations and volunteers for our clinics. Please consider an end of the year gift to support our work or getting in touch with us about how you might be able to help as a volunteer.

Continue reading with “What’s Next for SWIRC.”

Our Legal Clinics are Open to All

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This week, like every week, we saw a wide variety of people at our legal aid clinics. We are unique among legal service providers in the Detroit area in that we welcome all at our clinics. Many free legal clinics have a couple areas of law that they will help out with. Some have criteria that clients need to meet before they can talk to an attorney. 

We ask people their name and what their issue is. We help everyone. You don’t have to be a recent immigrant. You don’t have to show a certain low level of income. We will see anyone who presents themselves for help at one of our clinics. This makes us the only no-barrier provider of legal services.

Even though the law is quite broad I find that we are able to successfully provide real legal help to 90% of the people who come to our clinics. We have one full time attorney on staff, one part time attorney and about a dozen volunteer attorneys who donate their time at our clinics, each with their own area of practice. At any one time we have an impressive breadth of experience available to our clients. 

For any issues which we are not equipped to serve we are happy to refer to trusted partners. Most often this is for clients who need representation we are not equipped to provide. Medical malpractice an personal injury suits come to mind as an example. Often these cases require a lot of specialized knowledge and capital to invest in retaining expert witnesses. Many attorneys who represent these cases take a portion of their fee from the settlement that they win their clients. There are some unscrupulous practitioners out there who see their clients as a chance to make a lot of money. Talk to us first, we’re happy to refer you to someone trustworthy.

We’re out there three times a week because we believe that equal treatment under the law should be something that everyone receives. We are here to help, regardless of who you are or what your legal issue is.

Pontiac Legal Clinic

99 Wayne St, Pontiac

Tuesdays, noon - 5 pm

Southwest Legal Clinic

2826 Bagley St, Detroit

Wednesdays, noon - 7 pm

Eastside Legal Clinic

15491 Maddelein St, Detroit

Thursdays, noon - 5 pm