Iowa City attorneys offer free legal assistance in citizenship clinic

A Saturday morning clinic helped local immigrants fill out essential forms for citizenship as election season nears.



Andy Mitchell, News Reporter

Some Iowa City attorneys spent a recent Saturday morning donating their time to members of the local immigrant community to help them with applying for U.S. citizenship.

The Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa collaborated with general practice law firm Vondra & Malott to offer free immigration legal assistance and help filling out N-400 forms.

N-400 forms are used to apply for U.S. citizenship through the naturalization process. The forms are for green-card holders who meet certain eligibility requirements.

Attorney Daniel Vondra often collaborates with the center on immigration-related issues. He said that with a year and a half to go for the 2020 election, it is time to think about people with green cards or who want to apply for citizenship and to get them participating in the democratic process in the fall.

“With immigration being so much in the president’s policies and headlines, the other part of that is immigrants, if they are eligible to naturalize, and vote, and participate,” Vondra said. “It’s a good idea.”

He and the other volunteers were able to get “easy cases” out of the way, he said. But for some immigrant families, he said, the 20 pages and tricky legal questions in the N-400 form can be intimidating.

“I think it’s nice to have an environment where people can pelt immigration lawyers with questions,” attorney Emily Rebelskey said.

In immigration law, there’s a lot more of a need for privately funded, nonprofit services because there is no government funding, she noted. Under U.S. immigration law, defendants are not entitled to government-paid representation, and the burden of hiring legal aid falls to the immigrants unless they’re aided, for example, by nonprofits.

“People’s lives are on the line,” Rebelskey said. “And some people just can’t afford it.”

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When she was studying law in Iowa City, she said, the immigrant population and the lack of legal resources available to them pushed her to travel the avenue of immigration law.

“I feel like, in general, my impression has always been that in Iowa, Spanish-speaking attorneys are in demand, and there are not many,” Vondra said. “It’s an underserved population I think, people who need Spanish-speaking immigration attorneys or criminal attorneys.”

Director Rafael Morataya of the Worker Justice Center, which does extensive work with immigrants and immigrant families, said it makes a difference for working-class people and families to have free legal aid. While June 15 was the first citizenship clinic the center held in its new office space, in years prior, the center has collaborated with the University of Iowa for a similar purpose.

Other efforts to get free legal aid to Iowa City immigrants includes a group of UI law students called Safe Futures, which helps undocumented immigrants plan what to do with such affairs as finances and child care in the event of deportation.

“Much of the center’s purpose is building community solidarity among undocumented people,” center intern Spencer Shimek said. “[Citizenship] enables power and self-determination.”