Author Archives: ccttispblog

Ithacan Immigrant: Moe


This week’s Ithacan Immigrant features Moe Ler who naturalized as a U.S. citizen on February 2, 2018.  Moe, his mother, uncle, and grandmother received tutoring from Tompkins Learning Partners before accessing the citizenship services offered at Catholic Charities so they could become U.S. citizens.   Moe’s path to citizenship began almost 12 years ago when he entered the U.S. as a refugee and ended at Tompkins County’s Supreme Court during one of the biggest snowstorms Ithaca has had in recent history. Congratulations to Moe and the rest of the Ler family.


 ISP: Why did you come to US?

I came to the US because my mom was having a hard time because we were living in a refugee camp and we decided to come to the US for a better life.

ISP: Why did you decide to live in Ithaca?

My mother’s boyfriend recently died in New Jersey so we decided to come here because we had family here.

ISP: What was your first impression of Ithaca?

My first impression was it’s very small.  But there’s great people here.  It’s very peaceful – I feel like I’m back in my country in Thailand because you can see the mountains.

ISP: What is your favorite American food?

It would be pepperoni pizza.  I don’t really eat American food.

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

I don’t go shopping but I would say the Mall. 

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

The freedom.  In Ithaca you have a lot of freedom about where you want to go.  In Thailand, I was a kid in a refugee camp so I didn’t know a lot of stuff.  I was young and growing up and trying my best to learn about the world.   In the refugee camp you couldn’t go out – here I drive everywhere and I go to work and go to BOCES to learn more English. It feels a lot freer here. 


Family Reunification via Refugee Resettlement


TooDe, Karen refugee

One of the many adverse results of forced migration is the fragmentation of family groups. In the rush to leave unsafe homelands extended families disperse and nuclear families can fracture. The United States Refugee Admissions Program understands this and provides three ways for separated refugee families to become whole again. I recently met an Ithacan who was able to reunite with his sister through one of these paths.

TooDe was born in Burma amid the ongoing civil war between the Karen people and Burmese government. The war, started in the middle of the 20th century, had already displaced hundreds of thousands of Karen. His parents had met, married, and started a family in its midst. When TooDe was born, they thought they could hold out a little longer.

When he was three years old, his family decided to leave. They followed the paths of many before them and made their way east to one of the multiple refugee camps that had sprung up on the opposite side of the Thai-Burmese border. These camps allowed for relative safety and sense of community, but not much of a future. TooDe attended school in camp and his family received food from international aid groups, but the path to self-sufficiency was unclear. Out of Burma, but without the proper paperwork, Karen are not allowed to travel further in to Thailand to pursue jobs. Education is severely limited. His adult sister saw no future and applied for refugee status with UNHCR. Eventually, she was admitted to the United States. Her younger brother and parents remained in Thailand.

Life in the United States was better for his sister. She met a husband and moved to Ithaca. She found employment and her life improved, but she missed her family. She convinced her mother to apply for refugee status back in the camp. During the application process, TooDe’s mother listed her relatives and where they lived (United States and Australia). The family could also try life on their own in a county like the Netherlands. But TooDe’s sister had told them about life in the United States and they wanted to follow her there. It took a year to process and verify the application but eventually TooDe, his mother, and grandmother were granted permission to join his sister.

In anticipation of moving to the United States, TooDe watched American TV shows and movies. He was excited to travel and finally have reliable access to food. Leaving Thailand, he experienced his first plane ride. It took three more to arrive in New York City. He had not been able to anticipate the size of New York’s buildings or the diversity of its streets. Having arrived in June, the trees surprised him in the Fall when their leaves changed colors. He was excited to experience snow.

Having lived in Ithaca for some time now, TooDe has grown tired of snow. It’s too cold. He has been able to take full advantage of his freedom to travel and opportunities for employment. By bus, he’s visited North Carolina, Kansas, Nebraska, and Ohio. He wants to eventually visit Mount Rushmore. Thinking further afield, he hopes to tour Israel and see places the Bible talks about.  To fund these travels, he works in a locally owned food production facility. He is also studying English in the hopes of obtaining his GED. Once that step is completed, he hopes to attend TC3 and perhaps become a chef in a restaurant.

In the midst of the heated discussion over the value admitting refugees, it is important to remember stories like Toode’s. As he pointed out to me, we as Americans are lucky enough to have been born in a country where the government and military support its people. Some are not so lucky. Their families and lives suffer due to forces beyond their control.

As an international leader, and long-time beacon of hope to those suffering oppression at the hands of their governments, I personally hope that the United States can continue to value the sanctity of family unity and support the reunification of families fragmented by disaster through a robust refugee resettlement program.

Soren Klaverkamp

Refugee Resettlement Case Manager

Ithacan Immigrant: Paw


We interviewed Paw, a Burmese national, for this week’s Ithacan Immigrant. Paw came to the U.S. in 2006 through refugee resettlement but didn’t move into the Ithaca area until 2014.  We featured him in this blog post just a few months after he moved to New York.  This past fall, Paw accessed our citizenship services and since then has successfully passed his citizenship interview.  He is on deck to naturalize this next month in Syracuse.


ISP: Why did you come to US?

I wanted to live in a free country.

ISP: Why did you decide to live in Ithaca?

My mother and sister were living here so I moved to Ithaca.

ISP: What was your first impression of Ithaca?

I liked it because it’s a nice town, nobody bothers you, there’s not so many people.

ISP: What is your favorite American food?

Spaghetti.  Before when I lived in New Jersey, my brother-in-law used to cook that and I liked it.  I think it’s my favorite.

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

Walmart – it’s a little bit cheaper than the mall.

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

It’s very different.  Burma is so hard to buy what you want – we don’t have money, we don’t have many clothes or food.  In Ithaca we have a job and work and when we want something we buy it.  It’s very different.


Tax Day 2018


This year’s Tax Day, the day when individual tax returns must be submitted, or an extension must be requested, is Tuesday, April 17th . Filing taxes in a timely manner can be overwhelming, especially to someone with a language barrier, but we highly recommend all immigrant workers file their taxes on time and stay in compliance with the law. There are many resources available locally for tax preparation, including free tax prep programs for immigrants living in low-income households, or local tax prep businesses that can assist undocumented workers apply for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) to make the process easier.

Obtaining an ITIN can be a somewhat complicated process so we advise our clients to seek help from a tax firm that has a Certified Acceptance Agent. For years we have referred clients to H&R Block since they have someone who has already been vetted and authorized by the IRS to help applicants file and mail their ITIN application (W-7) and verify the identity documents needed to complete the application. In addition, we would add once they obtain their ITINs, undocumented workers should then pay back taxes.  This not only satisfies the law but it is certainly going to be a prerequisite for being eligible to apply for any future legalization program.

AFCU FREE Tax Prep Program

  • Call 2-1-1 to get pre-screened for eligibility and scheduled for an appointment.
  • Available for immigrants filing Form 1040 and who meet income guidelines.
  • Client must have social security or ITIN number to qualify for services.
  • No charge for services.

Lifelong FREE Tax Prep

  • Call 607-793-6144 to get pre-screened for eligibility and scheduled for an appointment.
  • Available to Seniors age 60+, all individuals with disabilities, all individuals with incomes below $32,000 and all families with incomes below $54,000.
  • No charge for services.

H&R Block

  • Local office that has Certified Acceptance Agent. ITIN prep is free if individual uses their services and pays for preparation of Form 1040.
  • Typical cost to prepare 1040 for couple with 2 dependent children is approximately $300.

If anyone needs our assistance in accessing these programs or has questions about the options listed above, please contact me at Catholic Charities by calling (607) 272-5062, x11.

Sue Chaffee

Accredited Rep

Staying Focused


Last week we made arrangements to interview Alex, a Nigerian national, for one of our Ithacan Immigrant blog posts.  When we met, we also decided to discuss Alex’s reactions to President Trump’s recent disparaging comments about Haiti, El Salvador, Nigeria and other African countries.   While we weren’t asking Alex to speak on behalf of the Nigerian diaspora, we were interested in getting his opinion since he was relatively new to the U.S. We thought it would be interesting to hear how he was reacting to what was being so heatedly discussed in the news.  Our conversation quickly revealed how determined Alex is to stay focused on doing the best with his life and not dwell on the negativity coming out of the White House.

ISP: As someone who recently emigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria, what were your initial thoughts when you heard President Trump had referred to your country as a sh**hole? 

I thought it was wrong to stereotype them but I also thought how Trump needs to be educated.  He needs to be prepped to present matters to wide audiences and told how to choose his words.  He was in a formal event – he wasn’t sitting at home in front of his wife and kids.  But he’s strong and pompous.  And that’s what he does so it wasn’t a surprise what he said.  We should try to shape him up because he’s not going to change.  We have to put some tools in place to stop the embarrassing things from happening.  I think it’s going to be a long time before the world will get over what he said.

As far as Nigeria, Haiti, and other countries he was talking about, they are all going through different stages of development.  There are stages of growth that economies must go through to finally become self-sustaining.    With all countries, there are bad times and there are good times.  Growth is about experience and improvement.  We should remember that, America was not different 300 or so years ago, it had to go through the same process.

ISP: Did you have a personal reaction to what was said?

I was embarrassed and offended.  It saddens me that the #1 person doesn’t know how to communicate with the outside world. Being politically correct should be a priority.  But I’m not letting what was said deter my focus. I was raised that when you are part of a community, and I am part of this community now, part of this country – you feel proud because this is home.  When the #1 person is saying that about me and others from my country, then I have to wonder how that makes others feel when they are looking at us.

When people try to talk about this with me, I don’t want to be in that conversation because there is nothing I can do about it.  I do what I have to do and stay focused.  I try to pay attention to my job and do the best I can.  Love conquers all, that might sound silly, but Trump needs help on how to speak.  If we hate him, nothing good is going to come out of it.  The best thing we can do is support him.  You should support someone through the good times and the bad times.

ISP: Do you know any Nigerians who came through the Diversity Visa Lottery program?

I don’t know too many but I can think of two examples.  One is a pediatrician who practices in Michigan.  Besides being a doctor, he does a lot of work that helps children.  He makes all kinds of donations so they have things like toys and free daycare.  I have another friend who works in manufacturing.  He has a Master’s degree in management.  One thing about Nigeria is parents make sure their kids get educated.  School isn’t free like it is here although some of the states might give a stipend but our parents pay for school from beginning to the end.

ISP: Is there anything else you want to add?

I’m not someone who dwells in problems.  I personally, move on and look for a solution.  The solution would be to prove everyone wrong.  Every country has its own issues; America has its own issues.  I don’t think any president can say what he said.  He’s so pompous and proud that he can say what he wants but he needs to do better.  Soon he will get pushed to the curb because the world is moving on.  But I’m not really qualified to comment on it.  I’m a resident here but I haven’t been here a long time.  The people who have been here longer are the ones whose opinions matter.  They have seen many presidents elected and they know when times were different.  They know what it feels to be home and how to preserve and respect that.  I would rather listen to what they say then to come up with my own opinion. Trump didn’t say the right thing, he shouldn’t have used those words.

Ithacan Immigrant: Dereje


This week’s Ithacan Immigrant features Dereje, an Ethiopian national who won the diversity visa lottery and arrived in Ithaca late last summer.  We first met Dereje when he came to Catholic Charities for help in obtaining his first job in the United States. He has a degree in philosophy and hopes to further his studies at a US college further down the road.


ISP: Why did you come to the US?

I came to the United States to get a better life. I’d like to learn more, improve my life, and experience a different social life. Also for a new experience.

ISP: Why did you decide to live in Ithaca?

I came here because my sponsor is in Ithaca. My sponsor was my neighbor in Ethiopia and our families have been friends for a long time.

ISP: What was your first impression of Ithaca?

I liked it. I felt better. I like the waterfalls and the lake. The social life is better as well. People are supportive and helpful. I think Ithaca is a special place because there are so many people from different places here and they are all friendly and helpful to each other. Winter is a new condition for me though. In Ethiopia there is no cold like this. The summer is hot and the winter is cool, but it is easy to adapt. I hear that many people think that snow is their favorite type of weather and I am excited to experience it.

ISP: What is your favorite American food?

I like the vegetarian burger but I add meat to it – sometimes chicken and sometimes beef!

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

I like Wegmans. It is a big store with lots of different options. Everything you could want is there.

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

There is a big difference in life style. My hometown is more rural. There are no big buildings or construction going on. The water and electric supply are better in Ithaca too.

Getting the Facts


When interviewing clients who are seeking an immigration benefit, it’s sometimes difficult to get the knowledge and facts needed to properly assess a case.  In some instances, the client isn’t always forthcoming with what they are willing to disclose, or may not recall all the facts, or simply doesn’t know the answers to the questions being asked.  But with immigration law, it’s necessary to obtain the facts when advising clients and determine whether filing an application with USCIS can expose them to harm’s way via the widening deportation net. According to the English philosopher Francis Bacon, knowledge is power.  Therefore, if I’m left with more questions than answers after interviewing a client and worry about the possible outcome of a case, I often suggest we submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

FOIA requests can be made to the Department of Homeland Security’s sub-agencies – USCIS, CBP, and/or ICE, depending on the information being sought after and it’s a great tool to use when unsure about a client’s immigration history.  Information can be obtained that sheds light on a variety of things and pretty much removes the ambiguity from facts relevant to the case.  For example, when making a FOIA request to USCIS, I can find out how a client came into the country, what was said on previous applications when trying to apply for a benefit, and if they possibly have an immigration benefits out there they didn’t even know about.

One of my earliest FOIA requests resulted in a client finding out she had been granted asylee status as a young teen.  Prior to receiving the information from the FOIA request, this same client had pretty much lived in fear because her Temporary Protective Status had been expired for over two decades.  Finding out that she was granted asylee status allowed us to adjust her status to legal permanent residency and after waiting four years, she naturalized as a US citizen.  If we had never made that FOIA request, she would most likely still be living her life in the shadows.

FOIA requests made to any of the sub-agencies can be very specific and targeted or can be broad.  I often make very specific requests to CBP to see if a client was placed into expedited removal proceedings prior to filing an I-130, alien relative petition.  Those results typically get responded to within 4-6 weeks.  A broader request would be requesting the client’s alien file, often referred to an A-file, such as the request I made for the client above who had asylum status.  This file contains all the information and documents DHS maintains on a non-citizen.

The files are fascinating to look at – they contain all collected documents obtained from the non-citizen, as well as statements and notes written down during interviews by various immigration officers, as well as memos and correspondence.  Complete A-files can take over 6 months to obtain so I only request them when necessary.  Whenever a client is vulnerable to being inadmissible or deportable though, it is crucial to obtain whatever information may be out so there to properly assess a case.  I wholeheartedly agree with Francis Bacon’s saying that knowledge is power; fortunately, the FOIA process is available to gather some pretty powerful facts when taking on a case with red flags.

Sue Chaffee

Accredited Rep

Ithacan Immigrant: Luay K & Luay G


We interviewed two Karen brothers, Luay K. and Luay G. for this week’s Ithacan Immigrant.  The brothers lived in a refugee camp from 1997 – 2015 on the Thai/Burmese border and were resettled in Ithaca where they had family ties.  They came to ISP to access our legal services in order to adjust their status from refugees to legal permanent residents.  Since this is our first Ithacan Immigrant post for 2018, we wanted to wish Luay K, Luay G, and our other immigrant clients, Happy New Year!


ISP: Why did you come to the US?

LK: We lived in a refugee camp and didn’t have freedom to go outside.

LG: I wanted to know about America and to have a better education.  I wanted to make a new life.  We lived in a refugee camp and we couldn’t go anywhere there.  We were afraid to go outside.

ISP: Why did you decide to live in Ithaca?

LK: Because I have family here.

LG: (same answer)

ISP: What was your first impression of Ithaca?

LK: There was a lot of snow so I didn’t want to go outside.

LG: There was a lot of snow so I thought this place was no good.  Now I love it here because I feel like it’s better than any other place.

ISP: What is your favorite American food?

LK: Pepperoni Pizza – I like to go to Pizza Aroma

LG: Pepperoni Pizza – I like Pizza Aroma, too.

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

LK: I only go to Walmart.

LG: Aldi’s because it’s a little bit cheaper.

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

LK: In the refugee camp when you want to buy something you don’t need a car.  Here you need a car to buy something.

LG: The weather, the culture, everything is different.  With Karen people, everybody is like family and everyone stay in one house.  Here you go to your job, you have different houses.  In the refugee camps if you want to communicate with people you don’t have to use the phone, you just yell and they hear you.


One of the many services that we offer at Catholic Charities is assistance with the application for an Obamaphone. But what exactly is an “Obamaphone”?

Obamaphones are the informal name for what is actually the Lifeline program. This program was created in 1985 with the purpose of ensuring that every American had access to the benefits that come with having a phone (i.e. additional job opportunities, access to emergency services, and increased family connectedness).

Each household is limited to one free phone and you must match one of the points below to receive one:

  • receive SNAP (Food Stamps, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)
  • receive SSI (Supplemental Security Income)
  • receive Medicaid
  • receive Section 8 (Federal Public Housing Assistance)
  • receive Tribal specific programs
  • receive Veterans pension and Survivors benefits
  • receive Income at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines (link)

One benefit of living in NY State is that residents here have additional ways to qualify. I have listed them below:

  • receive HEAP
  • receive Family Assistance
  • receive Safety Net Assistance
  • receive Free School Lunch Program

Here is a link to the NY State eligibility page: link.

Enrollment is relatively easy but there are occasional hang-ups. I personally assisted two clients recently. One had been attempting to enroll for 2 months but had yet to receive their phone. I was able to make a phone call and fix the issue with one well-placed call. Another client of mine was facing difficulties enrolling due to the spelling of her name. I was able to get a custom letter that confirmed her eligibility when normal routes did not and she has now received and activated her phone.

Are you interested in this program? Feel free to stop by Catholic Charities and either I or our service navigator, Ms. Michaela Cortright, can assist you with the application! We can also attempt to help smooth the enrollment process if you have already applied on your own but for one reason or another cannot complete the process.

I have also created a table below that provides information of the different benefits offered by each of the three major Lifeline providers in NY State.


Assurance Access

350 minutes

350 minutes 750 minutes

Unlimited texts

Unlimited texts

Unlimited texts

1 GB data 500 MD data

500 MB data

Coverage map


Coverage map

(Virgin Mobile)

Coverage map


Enroll here (online)

Enroll here (online)

Enroll here (mail)

Soren Klaverkamp


Ithacan Immigrant: Paula


This week’s Ithacan Immigrant features Paula, a Costa Rican national who is taking the steps to become a US citizen.  We first met Paula when she accessed our legal immigration services in 2013 in order to file an application to become a legal permanent resident.  She then returned this fall to access our citizenship services.    Paula also interned with ISP and is interested in pursuing practicing immigration law as a career.


ISP: Why did you come to the US?

I came here to visit my aunt and uncle and then eventually began to attend school.

ISP: Why did you decide to live in Ithaca?

Because this is where my relatives lived.

ISP: What was your first impression of Ithaca?

It reminded me a lot like my hometown, San Carlos.  I thought is was very green and everyone was friendly. 

ISP: What is your favorite American food?

My husband’s grandma’s foods – collard greens, fried chicken, mac and cheese, and banana pudding. 

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

Wegman’s – it’s the only place you can find the closest food to Costa Rican foods.  I buy yucca, plantains, Maggie, and good Costa Rican coffee.

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

The weather and the food. The weather here is a lot more extreme.  It’s extremely hot in the winter and extremely cold in the summer.  In San Carlos, it’s hot but we always have a breeze.  As far as the food, I grew up waking up at 5:00 am every day and my Mom always had breakfast ready.  She had rice and beans and platanos and a slice of cheese.  Over there we always had a big breakfast, a big lunch and then coffee in the afternoon with bread or tortillas.  Here, we are busier and have less time to prepare meals like my mom does in Costa Rica.