Staff and volunteers from Legal Hand Jamaica assist low-income community members. // Photo courtesy of Legal Hand

Legal Hand Empowers Low-Income Queens — And Wants Help

David Brand

Amid an immigration crackdown, affordable housing crisis and pervasive poverty, one Jamaica organization is reaching out to low-income residents and putting power and knowledge into their hands.

Legal Hand Jamaica, a collaboration between the Center for Court Innovation and Queens Legal Services, provides legal guidance and referrals for local low-income residents who face an array of issues.

The organization has its ear to the streets and is looking for lawyers to help advance their social justice mission and foster equity in the borough.

“Because we are on-the-ground, we are seeing people with these issues at our site and we understand the larger issues that are actually causing the problems, like housing, racism and [lack of] protection for immigrants,” said Jennie Kim, a Queens Legal Services attorney. “There are a lot of policies and tactics that make people scared.”

Legal Hand does not represent clients in court. Instead, they are an “access to justice” project that provides guidance and referrals on issues related to housing, consumer protection immigration and other areas.

“We are empowering communities by providing them with information so they can make decisions themselves,” Kim said.

Kim said the organization, which operates out of a Jamaica Ave. storefront office, attracts many fearful immigrant parents seeking advice amid the nationwide immigration crackdown. They may ask what would happen to their children if they get detained or deported, she said.

The clinic staff and volunteers address these acute issues while talking a more comprehensive approach to the individuals’ needs, said Volunteer Coordinator Tiffany Butters.

“People may come in with a housing issue and we’ll also deal with their consumer issues and their immigration issues,” Butters said.

The fear of immigration enforcement is tangible in the region.

An interactive map by the Immigrant Defense Project and the Center for Constitutional Rights indicates that at least 133 Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids or arrests have occurred in Queens, including dozens in the Queens Criminal Courthouse in Kew Gardens, since 2013. At least 17 immigrants have been arrested in Corona and at least one in Jamaica, according to the IDP map.

Legal Hand set up shop in Jamaica in late-2016 and serves about 100 people every week, Butters said. There are also Legal Hand locations in Crown Heights and Jamaica.

Before joining Queens Legal Services and working with Legal Hand, Kim represented victims of Hurricane Sandy in the Storm Response Unit at the New York Legal Assistance Group. She also worked for a civil rights firm and represented clients in federal and state court.

Butters is also an attorney and realized her passion for social justice while working for Single Stop USA, a nonprofit that helps people learn about and obtain resources and benefits.

Every Wednesday, Legal Hand hosts a Know Your Rights workshop for community members. Each session touches on a topic that affects low-income New Yorkers, like the rights of people staying in homeless shelters and the rights of immigrants with criminal histories.

Next week, an attorney from Queens Legal Services will visit Jamaica to discuss evictions and explain the specific differences between non-payment and holdover proceedings. In September, the agency will host a “Back to School” series, which will focus on bullying, gang violence and interactions between people of color and the police.

Legal Hand organizes the trainings and recruits specialists in response to community needs or demands, Kim said.

“Most of these workshops are developed by the folks who are coming here,” Kim said. “We hear about the different issues that people are facing and we reach out to attorneys.”

She said Legal Hand would like to connect with more Queens lawyers are interested in leading trainings or lending their legal expertise as volunteers.

“We welcome attorneys working in these communities and we would love to open up that opportunity for more people,” Kim said. “Attorneys learn a lot here. It’s not just about giving us their knowledge. [They] join together for justice.”

For example, the organization has worked with clients who are dealing with personal injury cases, real estate issues and guardianship and seek counsel in those areas. Currently, the organization engages with the Queens County Bar Association lawyer referral services to find pro bono attorneys. Legal Hand is located about a block away from the bar association and the Queens Volunteer Lawyers’ Project.

Legal Hand serves a way for attorneys to foster connections among people of diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses, Kim said.

“We tend to think of the law as the [domain] of lawyers,” Kim said. “But to achieve access to justice, everyone should know their rights and understand how to exercise those rights.

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