Be sure to check the credentials of anyone who says he can help with an immigration case before any forms are filled out, immigration attorneys warned Saturday morning.
"Our concern is that there are too many people involved in the unauthorized practice of law," said Elaine Witty, chairwoman of the Legislative Committee of the Tennessee Bar Association's Immigration Committee. "And by that I mean there can be a good-doer, who is a kind and friendly neighbor who thinks immigration forms are just forms. It could [also] be more predatory for people who have businesses set up as a target to the demographic in which they live.
* What: Free legal clinic on veteran's benefits, wills, debt relief, family law, immigration, bankruptcy and landlord/tenant issues.
* When: 8 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 30
* Where: Brainerd Recreation Center, 1010 N. Moore Road.
* Information: www.tba.org/celebrateprobono/cpb_events.html
"We want people to recognize that immigration law is not just filing forms; it's not a clerical task," added Witty, the founding partner of Witty Law Group in New York City.
Witty spoke at "Know Your Immigration Legal Rights," a free clinic held Saturday the Development Resource Center and sponsored by the Tennessee Bar Association's Immigration Law Section and several community organizations.
The clinic is among 30 events being held statewide as part of Celebrate Pro Bono Month, a concerted effort to provide legal services to the hundreds of people who need but cannot afford them, according to a news release.
Terry Olsen, a local immigration attorney and chairman of the Tennessee Bar Association Immigration Law Section, said the goal of the clinic was to reach immigrants, legal or illegal, in the state's major cities and tell them exactly what immigration law is, what can be done and what can't be done and who is an immigration lawyer.
And if someone is here illegally, he said, the clinic can offer information about the court system and what happens if the person is arrested.
Melody Bonilla, client coordinator for La Paz Chattanooga, one of the clinic's co-sponsoring agencies, said she's seen cases in which immigrants were deported when "something could have been done to help them, but they didn't have the right information."
Russell Mask attended the clinic with his wife, a Philippines native, and a friend to have a better understanding of what rights immigrants have, he said.
"We believe as Christians that God has said that the orphans, the widows and the immigrants are some of the most vulnerable people, and I've learned today that our government has a lot of protections for aliens," he said. "But [there are] definitely vulnerabilities."
For Ruby Benavides, a refugee from Colombia who resettled in Chattanooga a month ago, the clinic was a chance to be better-informed.
"No amount of knowledge is too much," she said in Spanish. "One can always make an error without realizing it."