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Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym speaks to the Vera Institute of Justice's Kica Matos about the importance of supporting immigrants amid COVID-19 on Sept. 24, 2020. Screenshot: Nigel Thompson/AL DÍA News.
Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym speaks to the Vera Institute of Justice's Kica Matos about the importance of supporting immigrants amid COVID-19 on Sept. 24, 2020. Screenshot: Nigel Thompson/AL DÍA News.

Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project gets boost from new Vera Institute of Justice program

Vera’s SAFE Initiative launched a Community Grant Program on Sept. 24 that awarded money to 13 organizations nationwide fighting for immigrant representation.

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Amid the coronavirus pandemic, a lot has come out about the contribution of undocumented immigrants to American society. 

In the case of many, they’ve been on the frontlines of the pandemic making sure Americans stay well fed and cared for. 

But while ICE did limit its enforcement efforts amid COVID-19, it’s also used the pandemic as cover to further flout safety and basic care measures in its facilities — which has resulted in a number of COVID-19 deaths.

Now, as news breaks of more blitz deportation operations to take place in “sanctuary cities” around the country, the need for free legal defense of immigrants is at an all time high.

Leading the effort in Pennsylvania is the Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project (PAIFUP), which recently received a grant from the nationwide leader, the Vera Institute of Justice’s SAFE Initiative through its new Community Grant Program.

PAIFUP was announced in July 2019, and got off to roaring start helping immigrants with free legal representation. It was almost cut as part of Philadelphia’s revised 2020 coronavirus budget, but was reinstated after debates with City Council.

The grants from the Community Grant Program were announced on Sept. 24 during a webinar that also featured a conversation between Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym and Vera’s Vice President of Initiatives, Kica Matos.

“The accumulation of injustices facing immigrant communities has reached a tipping point. In this treacherous environment, state and local universal representation programs provide a beacon of light,” said Matos.

Gym called the immigrant experience integral to the overall American experience.

“Talking about immigration is talking about American families fundamentally,” she said.

In addition to PAIFUP — represented by four Philly community orgs including Casa San Jose, Juntos, MILPA, and Vietlead — nine other organizations were given grants from across the U.S.

Nationally, Vera’s SAFE Initiative works with local governments, organizations and immigration advocates in 21 jurisdictions in 11 states across the U.S. 

Since its launch in 2017, the initiative has helped thousands of immigrants across the country. Forty-three percent have been freed from detention and 35% have won their right to stay in the U.S. 

The success rate in cases for immigrants without legal counsel is only 3%. 

“Through this collaborative partnership, individuals will not have to be forced to navigate the complex immigration system alone, a feat that is made even more difficult by language barriers, cultural obstacles, financial limitations, education level, and access to evidence and witnesses outside of the detention facility,” said PAIFUP representatives in a statement.

This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among more than 20 news organizations, focused on economic mobility in Philadelphia. Read all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org
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