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Bread for the City’s immigration lawyer helps clients find stability

Erin Scheick, center, with two clients she has helped as the managing attorney of the Domestic Violence Project and Immigrant Justice Project of the Legal Clinic at Bread for the City, a District charity and a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. (Tracy Davis)

In a town full of lawyers with high-powered clients, Erin Scheick serves the seemingly powerless. That makes her job all the more important.

Scheick is a managing attorney in the legal clinic at Bread for the City, a nonprofit that works with low-income Washingtonians.

“It’s really, really hard in the District to find affordable legal services,” Scheick said. “Part of our goal in establishing the legal clinic is to provide high-quality legal representation to clients who otherwise can’t afford those services and who are often in really precarious situations. Being able to navigate the legal process or explore options is instrumental in achieving some stability.”

When his wife was sick, this D.C. man turned to Bread for the City

Bread for the City, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, does a lot of things to improve lives in Washington, from distributing free groceries to running a medical clinic. It’s a broad mandate.

“Part of our view as an organization is to look at societal determinants of health,” Scheick said. “What are all the factors that lead to healthy outcomes for a family?”

Some of the factors are obvious, others less so.

“We see immigration status as really tied to [healthy outcomes],” said Scheick. “If folks don’t have lawful status, it can undermine their ability to achieve physical and mental health.”

And that’s why Scheick and her colleagues work to solidify their clients’ immigration status. The majority of the people they serve come from the Northern Triangle of Central America: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Recently there has been an influx of migrants from Venezuela, sent to the District by bus by the governor of Texas. Some clients have been victims of trafficking. Some seek asylum.

“Almost all have experienced a lot of trauma and violence in their countries of origin,” Scheick said. “Most have made the really, really difficult decision to leave their family, including children, behind in order to seek some measure of stability or safety.”

Some bring their children. Some send their children. Many are women. Some become victims of crime once they arrive in Washington.

“Our goal is to help as many individuals as we can with what I call full legal representation,” Scheick said. “If I’m accepting a case for our immigration practice, we have to be able to identify at least a pathway for that individual to earn some sort of permanent status in the United States or some kind of work authorization or a visa.”

As an example, Bread for the City’s legal clinic helped a woman who was married to a U.S. citizen and has a child who is a U.S. citizen. Her husband was violent.

“He was also controlling,” Scheick said. “He never filed paperwork to sponsor the woman to be a permanent resident.”

Scheick was able to seek relief through the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. This allowed the woman to successfully apply for permanent residency without relying on her abusive ex-husband.

Some clients are able to find relief with U visas, which are for victims of crime, or T visas, which are for victims of human trafficking.

It can be slow, complicated work, especially with Bread for the City’s small immigration law staff, currently one full-time attorney — Scheick — and a paralegal. (Scheick said she’s always looking for law firms willing to lend a hand with pro bono work.)

Immigration has become a controversial topic in this nation of immigrants. As it has for hundreds of years, the United States holds a promise that draws people here.

“It speaks to some of the values of our country, in terms of people being able to work hard and support their families,” Scheick said. “A lot of folks we work with are striving to achieve that for their families. I think sometimes that’s left out of the political narrative, or people forget that it’s individual people who made difficult decisions.”

Scheick worries that something important can get lost in all the rancor over immigration.

“We’re all human beings,” she said, “and we all want something similar: to be able to live to our fullest potential — and if we have a family or children, that they’re able to have that too.”

Helping Hand

Your donation to Bread for the City can level the playing field for people who need legal help. To support its work, go to posthelpinghand.com and click the link that says “Donate Online Now.”

To give by mail, make a check payable to “Bread for the City” and send it to Bread for the City, Attn: Development, 1525 Seventh St. NW, Washington, DC 20001.

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