Citizenship Classes Free Legal Help Launches for Asian Immigrants

AAAJA offers free and low cost legal immigration help, ESL and citizenship classes, hotline
July 5, 2015 Updated: March 7, 2016

For the first time, an Atlanta non-profit will offer free legal help and low cost legal immigration services for Asian people. Asian Americans Advancing Justice—Atlanta offers a legal hotline in five languages, legal help, and ESL citizenship classes, according to AAAJA Executive Director Helen Kim Ho. She has wanted to do this for a long time, and is taking a risk.

Ho left her corporate legal career and started the non-profit, then called Asian American Legal Advocacy Center, in 2010. It was “the first non-profit law center dedicated to promoting the civil, social and economic rights of Asian immigrants and refugees in the South,” according to its website. At first she drew no salary and worked from her home. Now she has a staff, an office, and a boatload of awards.

The risk is this: costs for the hotline, citizenship classes, and immigration help come from AAAJAs’ existing operating budget. There is no big grant and no big revenue stream to support it, so far.

“We want this to be sustainable,” said Ho.  They charge for ESL/citizenship classes, which culminate in taking the citizenship test. But a student can take the class as many times as he or she needs to to pass, without paying the fee again. And they will give scholarships to people who cannot afford the fee.

Unethical lawyers “took our money and ran.” Raymond Partolan, speaking of his parents.

Some people may think of non profits as less rigorous than the for profit sector. A retired friend told me, while we watched birds and toasted ourselves at his pool, that he tried to find a good volunteer gig, and became disappointed. He said people in the non-profit realm do not work hard or take risks. They live to get grants and then they coast, in his opinion.

But my altruistic and independent pal does not know the people at AAAJA. I think they have the same entrepreneurial spirit that we admire in the creative people in Silicon Valley. They are seeing a niche and trying to fill it. Taking a chance. Innovating. And creating jobs, I’m just saying.

The non profit sector can and does attract the best and the brightest.  Ho graduated with honors from Emory University School of Law. According to her bio on the AAAJA website, some of her laurels include being named to magazine Georgia Trend’s 2013 Power Women, its 2010 “40 Under 40″ Best & Brightest, and 100 Most Influential Georgians – Notables.  She was also honored with the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award for Innovation.  She was a 2012 Member of Leadership Atlanta, and won a Bill Sorro Community Activist Award from the Asian Law Caucus.  Newspaper Georgia Asian Times named her as one of Georgia’s 25 Most Influential Asian Americans.

Her new program coordinator, Raymond Partolan, just graduated summa cum laude from Mercer University in Atlanta. The other multilingual attorneys on staff have edited law reviews and served on boards, no slackers they.

Helen Ho, director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta, speaks about  answering legal questions for Asian immigrants at her office in Atlanta on June 22, 2015. (Mary Silver/Epoch Times)
Helen Ho, director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta, speaks about answering legal questions for Asian immigrants at her office in Atlanta on June 22, 2015. (Mary Silver/Epoch Times)

Georgia’s Asian-born population is growing fast, according to the Census. Over 330,000 Asian Americans live in Georgia and approximately 42 percent are limited English proficient, according to Ho. Yet more than 75 percent of legal service providers serve no Asian clients, she found, and only 13 percent of those firms had anyone on staff who was fluent in an Asian language.

That is a big service gap. It leaves Asian immigrants vulnerable to fraudulent or incompetent immigration advisors, according to Ho. She hopes her group will be a trusted source for direct help and for referrals, so that Asian immigrants won’t be exploited or swindled.

Several attorneys preyed on his parents, said Partolan. His family overstayed a professional work visa after many years in the United States. He is covered for two years by DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which means he won’t be deported and can work, attend school, and get a driver’s license. His parents are not covered.

Unethical lawyers “took our money and ran,” and his parents “went into major credit card debt” trying to gain legal status, he said. Partolan and several colleagues are working towards becoming accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals of the Department of Justice. A BIA accredited person is a type of paralegal with expertise in immigration law.

People at AAAJA speak Vietnamese, Spanish, English, Korean, Chinese, and Tagalog. Three attorneys are on staff, including Ho, Deputy Director Sara Hamilton, and Legal Director Monica Kinene.

 The AAAJA hotline is 404-890-5655. It’s in Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Spanish and English. Calls will be returned within 48 hours, said Ho. Immigration law is federal, so the AAAJA experts will be able to answer questions from outside of Georgia.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.