City expands mental health and legal help for immigrants

Iraqi refugee and Austini newcomer Ammar Sabri and family before his wife and children mistakenly left the US to visit sick relatives using only refugee passports. Catholic Charities is working to return the five to Texas.

AUSTIN (KXAN) – “We’re overrun.” That’s how the director of immigration legal services at the Catholic Charities of Central Texas describes the influx of new clients needing help navigating lawful federal government immigration and entry programs.

“Going back several months [with] the rhetoric around immigration we felt the need to get the [public] funds into the community as quickly as possible was paramount,” said Justin Estep, with the non-profit.

City leaders agreed Thursday, expanding a year-old $100,000 program offering mental health and legal aid to new arrivals by another $200,000 in emergency, one-time funding.

Provided attorneys and staff can be hired, the infusion will help another 50 people a month over the next 12 months. Half a year ago, Catholic Charities was getting an average 25 client requests a week, a number that has steadily risen to 40 a week, or 120 more people every month.

Iraqi refugee and former US Army interpreter Ammar Sabri wipes away a tear talking about his wife and four children, unable to return to the US after mistakenly returning home to visit relatives on refugee passports. Catholic Charities is working to get them home to Austin. (KXAN Photo)
Iraqi refugee and former US Army interpreter Ammar Sabri wipes away a tear talking about his wife and four children, unable to return to the US after mistakenly returning home to visit relatives on refugee passports. Catholic Charities is working to get them home to Austin. (KXAN Photo)

“We’ve seen clients who’ve been permanent residents for 20 or 30 years and were perfectly happy, come into our office and seeking naturalization services so they can become citizens,” said Estep, who admits the recent ICE actions and new administration at the White House is behind some of the increase in requests for help.

The fresh round of public money is there to help new arrivals like Iraqi refugee Ammar Sabri. He and his family left Baghdad a year ago January.  Last April, his wife and children returned to visit sick relatives, not realizing their refugee status would limit their re-entry into the US.

Since then, Ammar, who served 12 years employed by the US Army and private American corporations as a security guard and interpreter, has been trying to get them back home to the relative safety of Austin. His wife is shepherding the children who range in ages between 5 and 15. His main concern is their security in the place they fled about a year ago.

Through an Arabic translator, Ammar became emotional saying, “When I call my son we both cry. It’s very hard.”

Ammar is just one client of the non-profit Catholic Charities, but where else exactly is this new money going?

Other than legal help, grant money feeds into programs that: help families stabilize their budgets and recover from natural disasters and assist new mothers with prenatal and infant care.

KXAN checked the bigger financial picture for Catholic Charities of Central Texas. The non-profit’s 2014 tax filings showed $2 million in annual revenue, the bulk coming from donations. Less than a quarter about $487,000 came from government sources.

No matter the source, it’s money that translates into hope for people like Ammar. When KXAN’s Robert Maxwell asked if after all the grief and worry, he still believes in the American dream, Ammar wiped away tears, took a breath, nodded and said, “Yes.”

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