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This state pays to help asylum-seekers avoid deportation

Erika Bolstad, on

Published in News & Features

PORTLAND, Ore. -- One day five years ago, Alexander decided he'd had enough. Fed up with the culture of extortion in his home country of Honduras, Alexander stopped bribing the gang members who accosted him on his way to pay workers at his father's small ranch.

The police told Alexander to change his phone number, and he did, but within days, the gangs had his new number -- and issued new ultimatums. They vowed to kill him if he didn't pay up, a realistic threat in a violent country with one of the highest murder rates in the world. (Alexander is his middle name, used for his safety.)

Alexander fled for Texas, where after three days of detention in the Houston airport, he applied for asylum in the United States. But the same Honduran gangs had a presence in Houston and, reportedly, a list of names and photos of people who had fled north. Once again, Alexander feared for his life, and two years ago, he left Texas for Oregon, where he works as a house painter.

"This is my home," Alexander said. "I feel more safe here."

Now, Alexander is represented by Equity Corps of Oregon, the state's new legal defense effort that uses technology to pair immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees with help in immigration court, no matter their ability to pay.

In October, Equity Corps began a two-year, $2 million state-funded project using staff lawyers from six existing legal service nonprofits. Those lawyers are paid by their parent nonprofits, aided in part by grants from the city of Portland, Multnomah County and the state of Oregon.


Although other cities, counties and even states have similar programs, including New York, the Equity Corps program in Oregon is considered the first statewide universal representation program in the nation to use technology to connect poor immigrants to legal aid.

Alexander's lawyer, Amy Adams, helped him get a work permit and will represent him at his final immigration hearing next year. Adams was assigned to Equity Corps as part of her job as a staff attorney at the SOAR Immigration Legal Services program at Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.

"The vast majority of my clients are asylum-seekers from Central America," Adams said. "They were threatened by a gang or -- many of my clients are rape victims -- or have had some horrific thing happen to them in their home country. Which makes them afraid to be there, afraid that they might be killed if they're there."

Equity Corps emerged in 2018 out of research by a coalition of immigration advocates in Oregon angered by the Trump administration's policies and the effects of family separation, deportation and detention on the state's families, businesses and schools.


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