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Justice Bus Marks 10 Years Of Providing Free Legal Counsel To California Immigrants


One of the many obstacles for immigrants who are looking to become U.S. citizens is the amount of paperwork. It's great to have a lawyer to help with this, but many immigrants can't afford that. Karen Grigsby Bates from the NPR's Code Switch team spent a day with some lawyers who are trying to help.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Under normal circumstances, downtown lawyers from Nixon Peabody would be gathered for lunch someplace a lot more quiet than the room they're in now.


BATES: There might be tablecloths and upscaled bottled water. These Nixon Peabody lawyers are catching a quick bite of Mexican takeout in a community college classroom while they get a refresher course on filing immigration paperwork from Michelle Seyler. She works with immigrants at the Central American Resource Center in LA.

MICHELLE SEYLER: They volunteer. If they're on the PTA at their kid's school, that type of thing - that's great. I mean that makes them really good to Immigration.

BATES: Today, instead of billing hundreds of dollars an hour for their services, the Nixon Peabody lawyers are working gratis to help people with green cards become naturalized citizens. They're working under OneJustice, a legal services nonprofit that buses lawyers to people in California's underserved communities that don't often get to use legal help, people like Antonio, his wife, Aurora, and their daughter Miriam.

Hello - very nice to meet you.

MIRIAM: Hi - very nice to meet you.

BATES: We're using first names only because even though her parents are here legally, Miriam's a little nervous. Her parents keep promising to take the next step to become naturalized one of these days, she says. She and her father both realized when that day had come.

MIRIAM: Last November, I took my dream vacation to Europe, and he came with me. When we came back, we came back to a new president. And he was worried that they weren't going to let him in because of the travel ban and all this.

BATES: Donald Trump's proposed travel ban focused on citizens from predominantly Muslim countries, but it made many immigrants nervous. So Antonio and Aurora made a promise to their six grown children who'd all become citizens years ago. Miriam translates for her dad.

MIRIAM: We're going to do whatever we have to do to become citizens because the laws are changing. We don't know what's going to happen to us. And we can go back because they have nothing back there. Like, all their family's here.

BATES: In the consulting room, Antonio and Aurora settle opposite Nixon Peabody associate Jessica Walker while Miriam translates.

JESSICA WALKER: So the next step is to go through a list of questions that are potentially a red flag.

MIRIAM: (Speaking Spanish).

BATES: Questions like, has either Antonio or Aurora ever helped anyone enter the country illegally? Have they ever associated with terrorists? The answer to all the red flag questions is no.

A lot of people wonder if folks have been eligible for citizenship, why did they wait this long to apply for it? Seth Levy is managing partner for Nixon Peabody's LA office and a board member of OneJustice.

SETH LEVY: It's often the case that, you know, within the same family, you'll have - someone's a citizen. Someone's a permanent resident. Someone might be undocumented. It could be a whole host of things. But there are also many who I think are fearful of the system.

BATES: And they don't want to call attention to themselves.


BATES: Back out in the consultation room, every table is filled with people seeking help. Most are adults. Some have brought older children. Trainer Michelle Seyler says she's noticed a change in her clients' demeanor as the political rhetoric surrounding immigration has become more harsh.

SEYLER: A lot of them are visibly anxious. A lot of them are older. And the process is really confusing even for me. And so they feel - I can feel their stress when they walk into my office.

BATES: OneJustice lawyers managed to alleviate some of that stress for Antonio and Aurora today. After three hours with Jessica Walker, the confusing applications have been filled out correctly, and the couple's journey to become official Americans has begun. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.