Yearly Archives: 2015

Syrian Refugee Crisis

syria-refugee-crisis“Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions…”

-Pope Francis

This quote by Pope Francis properly and thoroughly introduces where American stands currently within the global Syrian refugee crisis.  The chance to prevent or halt the problem has passed; what we must now turn to is how we will interpret and react to the situation and the decisions we will make.  Will we stand idly by while millions are displaced, under-clothed, and starving as they are left in the elements to winters’ cold?  It should remain forefront in our minds that these are the victims of the atrocities being committed in their native countries.  Left with no recourse beyond violent subjugation or the dangerous trek to the safety of Europe these families risk their lives and all they hold dear for the smallest chance of safety.  That is the level to which conditions have developed, where it is preferred to risk your children’s lives upon freezing black sea’s in rafts rather than stay another day in abject fear.  When faced with that mentality it is appalling that some would react aggressively to bar their entry into a safe haven when it can be so easily provided.  To do so is to in a very real sense turn a destitute mother with an infant away from your door in the middle of winter.   We have the capability and resources available to help and it’s critical not only for the victims, but to be able to hold any semblance of a national morality or ethics.

Now, however, this should by no means be a blanket welcome granted to any and all who claim refugee status.  With the rise of twisted groups such as ISIS and their grotesque use of terrorist attacks targeting citizens, together with its capability of operating with small cells, presents real and pressing danger to the US.  After seeing the aftermath of atrocities such as in Paris and Beirut, a small part of the anti-immigrant sentiment can be understood and the illogical fear it stems from.  Americans want to be safe, to do all they can to protect their families; just as the refugees do.  What needs to be disseminated more effectively is that no one is proposing to bring all of the refugees without security checks.  The refugees are first subjected to interviews by UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).  After being referred by UNHCR, they undergo a barrage of checks ranging from a 1 on 1 interview with homeland security operatives to a number of other intelligence agency screenings.  Many of them are coming from refugee camps and areas and have been monitored for years by UN personnel.  Finally, another point is the importance of demographics; only 2% of the Syrian refugees arriving in the US are “military-aged men” according to the state department, and those are just as thoroughly vetted and processed.  The rest are mothers, small children, the elderly: essentially the helpless searching for any kind of sanctuary.

We are a nation of immigrants, built upon them and strengthened by them.  Each and every refugee or migrant influx through history has been met with suspicion by those already established, yet each time they in turn did great things for our nation.  We cannot turn from that reality; the prey of violent extremists are begging for help, and the United States and world should answer.

Sam Heptig

ISP intern


Ithacan Immigrant: Amy

~8958845This week’s Ithacan Immigrant features Amy, a former Chinese national who is now a US citizen.  We first met Amy when she came to ISP to get help to bring her parents to the US as legal permanent residents.  Her mother (pictured with Amy) arrived last year and recently came to Catholic Charities to get help petitioning for Amy’s sister to come to the US.



ISP: Why did you come to the US?

Amy: I was looking for a better life.

ISP: Why did you decide to live in Ithaca?

Amy: We were looking for a place to open a restaurant.

 ISP: What was your first impression of Ithaca?

Amy: It was a small town, pretty and safe.

ISP: What is your favorite American food?

Amy: Hamburger with cheese and bacon.

ISP: Where is your favorite place to shop in Ithaca?

Amy: Wegman’s because there is a lot of variety and it’s fresh.  It’s expensive but good.

ISP: What is the biggest difference between Ithaca and your home town?

Amy: The air is fresh here, there are a lot of trees and sunshine.  I lived in the countryside in China and sometime it was dirty and not as clean here.

Enduring the Pathway to Citizenship

oath-allegiance-has-changedThis past August, I attended a citizenship ceremony in Ithaca and was so happy when I realized one of my former clients was included in the row of immigrants standing in the front of the courthouse taking the oath of allegiance.  She was an Indian national who I had provided advocacy for regarding her citizenship application in 2012.  We had initially met during a legal consultation that resulted in me providing her some legal advocacy through our local congressman’s office.  Through their efforts, I found out her case was still pending due to a FBI “name check” and her case had succumbed to something that almost resembles a black hole.

I eventually would attend an immigration conference and inquired about her case because the extraordinary amount of time the background checks were taking seemed cruel. I found out there had been some success in suing the US government using the “writ of Mandamus” for cases where citizenship applications had been left pending for an unreasonable amount of time.  This particular lawsuit can be filed to actually force (or mandate) a government agency such as USCIS to make a decision.  I was excited to pass this info on to my client when I found out her case was still pending and recommended she make an appointment with a local law firm.  I never knew the outcome of her case until I saw her naturalize.

We met after she naturalized and it was that I gained some insight into the emotional toll she had endured because of the lengthy citizenship process.  I also found out she never sued the government because it was too costly.  I asked her to write about this especially since she had waited a mind-boggling eight years to have a decision made on her case. She had a constitutional right to have a decision made on her application in a timely manner so I think her story, and stories similar to hers, should be told.  Here’s what she wrote….

“I applied for my citizenship in August, 2007 and was very excited when I was scheduled for my interview in February, 2008. My interview and the officer told me that I would receive a request for more information or an invitation to the oath ceremony in the mail.  I got impatient and frustrated when I did not hear back from the immigration office after 120 days and called customer service which could not give me any further information besides letting me know that they would put a note in my record for an officer to get back to me within two weeks. I approached a lawyer and paid $500 for a first session and realized he wanted more in fees to pursue this. I decided to do the research and follow up on my case. I visited USCIS website and saw that there was a back log of cases and background checks were delayed.

A year later I set up an Info-pass only to hear the same answer. Months turned to years, frustration replaced hope and I decided not to think about it (easier said than done); at the end of each day my thoughts would wander back. My family, work and life went on but this little thought nagged at the back of my mind.   

Four years later, I heard Catholic Charities was offering free consultations on immigration cases. That’s where I met Sue Chaffee and she heard me out and told me that I was not alone and that she had seen this happen with others.  She offered to follow up on my case and came up with the same answer; my case was probably deep down in the black hole of background checks! Although this answer was disappointing, it brought back my hope until a couple years later when Sue attended a legal immigration conference and discussed my case.  When she got back, she advised me to hire a lawyer and sue the government. This was going to be expensive though and at that point I had two kids in college so I decided not to pursue this option.

It was over for me! Now my thoughts wandered off to, will they renew my green card? Do I have a future in this country? Should I start preparing to go back to the place I once called home? How do I prepare my kids for this? The list kept on and on and the stress creeped in. The only thing that works for me in times like this is prayer.  My focus moved to planning for our family in all aspects, although in my heart I knew there was really was no option I belonged here, this is my home.

This past January, I tried emailing again and actually received a letter with an appointment date! This was fantastic!! I was interviewed for two hours and my entire immigration file was reviewed. There is always this fear that I may not remember the exact details, which at certain times I just could not. The officer said to me that he was not convinced and would need more time or information. He also mentioned that I should be glad that I still had a green card which gave me access to live and work in this country.  I finally said to him what I wanted to all this time. I completely understood that he was doing his job and if he was not convinced he should not give me the citizenship. I dreaded the statement he made as I was leaving that I would probably have to come in one more time. In my mind I had decided I was never going back.

In exactly sixty days I got an invitation to my oath ceremony in the mail.  It was hard to believe! I was skeptical and went to the oath ceremony fully prepared to be questioned again. I was skeptical and went fully prepared to be questioned and my application denied. It was a beautiful ceremony which I would have loved to share with my near and dear ones, but didn’t.  But alas, I finally naturalized and the only emotion I felt was relief! The long waiting game had consumed my enthusiasm, excitement and joy. I love my life in the US, I learned a lot from my people around me and found myself and strength for which I will always be loyal and grateful to this country. For me, the lyrics of the star spangled banner sum it up: The land of the free and the home of the brave, In God is Our Trust.”


Ithacan Immigrant – Carlos

~8958845We recently interviewed Carlos, an Ecuadorian national, for the Ithacan Immigrant. Carlos recently sought out our legal services to help him apply to become a US citizen.   During our interview, it  became quickly evident how passionate he is about playing soccer.



ISP: Why did you come to the US?

Carlos: Because my Dad brought me here.

ISP: Why did you decide to live in Ithaca?

Carlos:  It’s a beautiful place.  I don’t think I could live in another place besides Ithaca.  It’s a nice community and there’s a lot of soccer.

 ISP: What was your first impression of Ithaca?

Carlos:  Too much snow!

ISP: What is your favorite American food?

Carlos: Wings – I like them from Uncle Joe’s.

ISP: Where is your favorite place to shop in Ithaca?

Carlos: TJ Maxx – they have good clothes that are cheap.

ISP: What is the biggest difference between Ithaca and your home town?

Carlos:  The culture.  Young people here can grow up with a future mentally more than they can in my country.  Young people here have expectations about their future; in my country they just live with the flow. 

Guest Post: Anne Horst (ISP job developer)


            Elsa’s new job site

My name is Anne Horst and since mid-August I have worked at Catholic Charities in the Immigrant Services Program as a job developer and English as a Second Language teacher for immigrant residents.  It has been a great joy to work with our clients.  Even though they have varying levels of English language aptitude, I have found that all have been extremely eager to work hard to at connecting with resources in the community to better their lives, and to find a job which will help support themselves and their families.

Over the last two weeks, I have had the great pleasure of working with Elsa (not her real name), a hard working woman who has Temporary Protective Status who was highlighted in this post.  Elsa has an incredibly strong work ethic; for the last 13 years she has been her own boss as a house cleaner and has longevity working with a devoted roster of customers who highly value her work.  However, she has been asking to find a traditional job so that she can have the same benefits that many of us enjoy—sick time, vacation leave and health insurance.  Even though she still likes cleaning houses, she would like to relax a little bit, and not have to always worry about the scheduling, negotiating and juggling challenges one faces in being self-employed.

So, at Elsa’s request, we started to search for jobs with benefits.  She was granted her first interview ever with a local employer who carries many contracts.  When I talked to her about preparing for the interview, I had to be convincing; she was more interested in showing off her skills than talking about them.  Just thinking about proudly tooting her own horn made her lose sleep for two nights!   When she was offered the job, she started to negotiate the hours (why not?  This is what we always do!).  She wanted to work on specific days, and was not clear that she was being offered two alternate possibilities: option A–daytime 9-5, option B–afternoons and evenings.  Finally, she decided to work the daytime shift; she’d try and accommodate one or two cleaning customers on her days off.

The next step was meeting with HR, and filling out the paperwork.  Why are they asking so many questions?!? she asked.  Having started work at a very young age, Elsa never achieved a high level of education in her native Spanish language, so the forms given to her in triplicate seemed a little daunting.  She very proudly signed her name and date on each spot requested, though it did take her a while.  Policies?  Procedures?  Hmmm.  OK, she said, I won’t hug my co-workers.  I will remain professional.  Yes, if I see an act of bullying, I will report it.

She started work.  It was bumpy at first, she had to switch sites because her first supervisor got mad that she wouldn’t take a break.  It didn’t make sense to her that she was required by New York State to rest.  Her policy before was to work until the job is done following a procedure of covering the room from left to right.  Now, at this second site, I am hopeful she will be a successful employee.  Her new supervisor took her under his wing, and promised he would work through any difficulties.  The higher ups in the organization promised that their staff at this location is very supportive, and can help explain new tasks.

As a strong independently minded woman, Elsa sometimes finds it hard to take direction.  She is eager to learn, however.  She knows that in the past cleaning houses for her customers supported them in a way which decreased the chaos which full schedules of activities and work creates.   She hopes now, in this job, that she can help the other employees as well.  She wants very much to interact with and benefit people she meets.

Ithacan Immigrant: Natalia

This we~8958845ek’s Ithacan Immigrant features Natalia, a Ukrainian national, who originally came to the US as a refugee.  Natalia first came to ISP for assistance in adjusting her status from refugee to legal permanent resident.  We recently assisted her and her mother with applying to become US citizens.




ISP: Why did you come to the US?

Natalia:  My brother got married and we wanted to be reunited with his family since we hadn’t seen him in six years. 

ISP: Why did you decide to live in Ithaca?

Natalia: Many people that we met in New York told us Ithaca was a beautiful place so we came here. 

 ISP: What was your first impression of Ithaca?

Natalia: I remember seeing the many different parks and waterfalls – we never had anything like that in the Ukraine and it was big for me to experience that.

ISP: What is your favorite American food?

Natalia: Steak and burgers.

ISP: Where is your favorite place to shop in Ithaca?

Natalia: Kohl’s is probably my favorite.  I used to like to go to Evolution downtown but it’s closed now.

ISP: What is the biggest difference between Ithaca and your home town?

Natalia:  We have more opportunity and jobs here.  If you want a job, you can find it and you don’t have to wait until you are 18.  In my hometown you have to be 18 or older if you want to have a job.  Also, there are more parks here, better roads and better stores.

Meet Sam: ISP Intern

SamLast month we received a phone call from Sam Heptig, a recent college grad, who said he was interested in Ithaca’s immigrant community and offered to volunteer for our program.  We immediately brought Sam on board and since starting here he has been busy doing research for some of our legal cases, translating documents (he’s a fluent Spanish-speaker), and meeting with our Spanish-speaking clients.  For several years now, ISP has been very fortunate in having a string of talented college students and/or recent college grads help us out (Emma Banks, Teresa Rojas, Dina Ljekperic, Kait Hulbert, Pete Quandt, Sarah Browne, and Ryan Opila) and we’re happy to add Sam to that list.  We asked Sam to introduce himself via our blog and to share his thoughts about the Pope’s recent visit.  Here’s what he wrote….

My name is Sam Heptig and I’ve just recently begun to volunteer at Catholic Charities for Tompkins/Tioga.  I was born and raised in Trumansburg, and have lived here most of my life.
As for the other parts, I was lucky enough to be accepted as a Rotary Exchange student and spent a year living in Argentina after high school.  Upon returning, I attended college at the University at Albany SUNY and graduated with a BA in Political Science and minor in Spanish.  I learned about Catholic Charities through my current job at the Cornell Catholic Community, and after learning more about the work they do, and specifically their work in immigrant services, I decided to volunteer.

My year in Argentina is what first began my interest in working with international organizations and immigrant communities.  Living in a different country gave me a better perspective on what other people have to go through, and the great potential for aiding them.  My degree had a focus on Global Affairs, and I specifically took classes on regions and aspects of Latin American culture.

My Catholic faith has also influenced me greatly in guiding my actions and steering me toward work that will allow me help people in a personal way here in my community.  Having lived in Argentina, my study of international trends and policy, and lastly having been given the chance to work helping immigrants and migrants at Catholic Charities has all correlated in an interest in Pope Francis and his message on migrants in his recent trip to US cities.  The Pope’s message has not been scarce or hard to interpret,

“We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.”

He is calling on us as individuals who are part of a greater community of humanity, a “universal network of cooperation” to come together to understand that these are people, who deserve the safety and dignity of being treated as such, and not as simply an issue to be addressed.  These families are fleeing some of the worse conditions on earth; from war-torn regions of civil unrest to the violently run cartel territories, frequently for the betterment of their families and children above themselves.  You can watch numerous videos of parents all over the world begging border officials or aid workers to take their children to safety without them, betting everything on the chance for a better life for their young.  That kind of desperation cannot be met with regulations or harsher laws, they should be sheltered and protected as we are all connected here on earth.  The love of God and the love of your fellow-man goes beyond borders or nationalities, we are all humans, and we all deserve the chance for a good life away from such strife, but that chance isn’t handed to many around the globe.  Therefore the duty to help falls to all of us, we cannot continue to distance ourselves from the global connection we share; whether that connection manifests as religious faith, or simply caring about your fellow-man within your own set of beliefs, what matters is that we ARE all part of something larger and we should begin to reflect that in our actions.

Sam H

Ithacan Immigrant: Minh

~8958845This week’s Ithacan Immigrant features Minh, a Vietnamese national.  We recently assisted him with applying to become a US citizen.



IMG950104 (1)


ISP: Why did you come to the US?

Minh: I came to the US to study and look for a job. 

ISP: Why did you decide to live in Ithaca?

Minh: Because I studied at TC3 and I have relatives here.

 ISP: What was your first impression of Ithaca?

Minh: The weather.  The weather over here has 4 seasons.  I can see them all clearly.  You can see the season change from one into the other.

ISP: What is your favorite American food?

Minh: Hamburger.  I can only eat the hamburgers, I can’t eat any other American food.  I lived in Vietnam a long time and it’s hard to change.

ISP: Where is your favorite place to shop in Ithaca?

Minh: Ithaca Mall – I like Best Buy and the Shoe Dept.

ISP: What is the biggest difference between Ithaca and your home town?

Minh:  The different is the weather.  In my hometown the weather is always hot there.  Right now it’s getting cold here.

Internet romance: If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is

online-datingThis past week I had legal consultations with 3 different women, all US citizens, who came in with questions regarding the fiancé petition process stating they had fallen in love with a foreign national they met online and now wanted to marry.  Demographically, these women had very little in common; they were from different social classes, different ethnic groups, and were from different age groups (one was in college, another was close to retirement).  But their stories were eerily similar when they described how quickly they fell in love via the internet, how quickly they were proposed to, and how quickly their new loves were in prompting them to start the fiancé petition process.  I realized after the 3rd consultation that I had repeated the catchphrase often used by the Better Business Bureau, “if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is” to all 3 of them.

I have done my fair share of K-1 nonimmigrant visas (also known as the fiancé/fiancée visa) and some of them have turned into what appears to be good marriages.  On the other hand, last year I started seeing a trend in how many clients were involved in internet dating and how many of them were suffering the consequences of not knowing their partner well enough before marrying, not knowing they were being scammed or not knowing they were entering into an abusive relationship.  I saw so many that I posted this blog.  More and more I am either getting phone calls or having meetings with women who have been chatting online with foreign national men (often with a big age different) and want to bring them to the US to get married. They are willing to throw caution to the wind mainly because they are tired of being single and are not only willing to sponsor them in getting a green card but are agreeing to pay the application fees.  Reflecting back on this week, I feel compelled to write yet again about internet dating and green cards and how this combination often results in marriage scams and broken hearts.  Not always, but often.

Internet romance and marriage fraud scams are so prevalent now that almost every US Embassy issues a warning similar to this …United States citizens should be alert to attempts at fraud by persons claiming to live in (insert name of country) who profess friendship or romantic interest over the Internet.”  Just a brief google search brings up warnings from several US embassies including those located in Algeria, Ghana, Russia, the Ukraine, France and Russia.  And some of those warnings included a similar adage to the one above, “if it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.”  It’s interesting being a legal practitioner – ethically it is within the scope of my daily work to provide someone with the steps needed to bring a fiancé/fiancée to the US.  But morally, I feel like I have an obligation to point out what the US embassies around the world have posted on their websites such as this pretty thorough warning from Algeria.  While this can come across as judgmental, I still feel like it is my moral obligation if the story I am hearing from the US citizen petitioner sounds too good to be true.

Looking back on these consultations, I feel empathy for these women because all 3 of them are strongly convinced they have found genuine love.  I hate to be the skeptic and the bearer of bad news but I feel it is my duty to give them a reality check and point out (like the embassies do) that if it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t true. Even though I provided a link above to the Algerian Embassy where they gave the following advice, it’s worth highlighting here,  “Often, the marriages end in divorce in the United States when the foreign national acquires legal permanent residence (“green card”) or U.S. citizenship. In some cases, the new American or permanent resident then remarries a wife he divorced before, around the same time as entering into a relationship with a sponsoring American citizen.”  I have chosen to emphasize those two sentences because sadly, I have seen this exact same scenario play out in Ithaca so it’s advice worth paying attention to.

Sue Chaffee

Accredited Rep

Ithacan Immigrant: Yuko

~8958845This week’s Ithacan Immigrant features Yuko, a Japanese national.  Yuko originally came to the US to study in Tennessee and “look for freedom.”  She eventually migrated north  to attend Cascadilla School and has made Ithaca her home. 





ISP: Why did you come to the US?

Yuko:  I was looking for freedom – American freedom.

ISP: Why did you decide to live in Ithaca?

Yuko:  I saw a magazine in a Japanese bookstore and it had an advertisement for Cascadilla school.  I started out at a very strict school in Tennessee but then contacted at Cascadilla and decided to come here.

 ISP: What was your first impression of Ithaca?

Yuko:  (she laughs) When I was in the Ithaca airport, I thought, Oh my Gosh, it’s just like Tennessee.  I thought I was going to be in New York City surrounded by tall buildings but I wasn’t!

ISP: What is your favorite American food?

Yuko:  Hamburgers – I like to get them at Stella’s, the Ale House and Bandwagons.  I never used to eat hamburgers but now I love them!  I think it’s a perfect mix – vegetables, cheese, and meat.  I even make them at home.

ISP: Where is your favorite place to shop in Ithaca?

Yuko: I like Salvation Army and Petrune (the vintage store) on the Commons.

ISP: What is the biggest difference between Ithaca and your home town?

Yuko:  Ithaca has more people and has people from all over the world.  My city was very small and there weren’t many foreigners there.