A new JFON site opens in underserved Kentucky in the middle of the pandemic
“I’ve always had a strong sense of justice,” writes Sarah Ellen Adkins, executive director for Neighbors Immigration Clinic, (NIC) our new JFON site in Kentucky. “I became a lawyer to be a voice for people who don’t have access to power.”
Sarah’s calling took her to Maxwell Street Legal Clinic in Lexington—a program of the Kentucky Equal Justice Center. The challenging work and long hours didn’t faze her at all. But the number of people being turned away disturbed her immensely. It was the same story at Kentucky Refugee Ministries, the only other nonprofit offering immigration legal services in Lexington.
“All of us were working very hard and seeing as many clients as we could, and it still wasn’t enough,” says Sarah. “The need here in Kentucky was—and is—just too great.”
Many people are surprised to learn that Kentucky is a major refugee resettlement state, ranking 5th in refugee arrivals in 2019.
Kentucky has a particularly large Congolese refugee population—per capita, one of the largest Congolese populations in the world.
French is the official and main language of the Congolese people.
Happily, Ellen Findley, NIC’s new staff attorney, also speaks French, and looks forward to working with this community.
There was also a particular need for a nonprofit provider that could concentrate on the most difficult and time-consuming immigration cases—removal defense (for immigrants in detention and facing deportation) and affirmative asylum (for asylum seekers currently in the United States.)
When Sarah joined the team working to create a JFON site in Lexington, this was the void she was determined to fill. “We focus on these two case types because no one is doing them—or not enough—and they are prohibitively expensive for most people,” says Sarah.
Neighbors Immigration Clinic has a home in Lexington’s aptly named Embrace Church. Sarah’s first clients—a family of asylum seekers—had been in Iowa before coming to Kentucky. In one of those strange and serendipitous coincidences, they found their way to NIC through Iowa Justice for Our Neighbors, a happy result of being part of the JFON network.
Last month, with grants from the Kentucky Bar Foundation, Appalachia Community Fund, and with donations from community partners, NIC realized their goal of expanding their work in the rural areas of Eastern Kentucky. With space provided by Somerset First United Methodist Church, they now operate a clinic in the town of Somerset (population 11,486), about a 90-minute drive away from Lexington.
“Eastern Kentucky is in Appalachia,” explains Sarah, “and it is lacking in every type of service that exists. There is limited legal aid in general, and there are no immigration legal service providers. It’s a poor area, and most of the immigrants are factory or farm workers,” she adds earnestly. “They can’t afford to take a day off to go to Lexington, so we are bringing our services to them.”
Most of the immigrants in Somerset come from Guatemala or the other Northern Triangle countries—Honduras and El Salvador—of Central America.
Many of them work on the region’s tobacco or other farms. Others find employment in local factories.
To open a JFON site is never an easy task. To open during a pandemic presents all sorts of additional obstacles. And to open a JFON site in Kentucky, the fifth poorest state in the Union and one of the most conservative and politically hostile to immigration reform, would seem to require an almost superhuman effort.
Thankfully, Sarah, her board members and the community have been able to successfully meet all challenges, thus far.
“I have received some pushback, some of it hurtful,” Sarah admits, “but by and large, people seem really excited to be supporting us. You know, there aren’t a lot of ways to support immigrants in Kentucky.
“And a lot of the people who have trouble with immigrants have never met any,” she adds, smiling. “We’re going to change that, too.”
This month, NIC welcomed their new staff attorney, Ellen Findley, a graduate of Penn State Law School, with an enthusiasm for immigration law that matches Sarah’s passion.
A native of Lexington, Ellen is glad to be back home and helping her immigrant brothers and sisters. Here she is pictured at NIC’s Somerset clinic, observing strict safety precautions to avoid the spread of COVID-19.