New London - Immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens or need help filling out complex paperwork no longer have to travel to Hartford or Bridgeport.
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Norwich opened an Immigration Counseling Program office last month at 28 Huntington St. The primary focus will be on family-based immigration - immigrants who want to petition for relatives to join them, for instance - and naturalization services.
"The whole immigration issue is quite controversial," said Marek Kukulka, executive director of Catholic Charities. "Some people will just hear that we're helping immigrants, but we're not condoning illegal immigration. We're here to help those who are eligible for paperwork according to the laws of this country."
Filling out forms to replace a green card or apply for citizenship can be confusing, especially if one is not familiar with the English language.
A wave of immigrants has come to the region to work at the casinos, and many are here on visas and need help renewing them, said Rosalinda Bazinet, an employee with the immigration program.
Bazinet said they've helped eight clients - workers from the casinos, restaurants and factories, as well as the elderly.
A Haitian client was seeking temporary protective status because of the recent earthquake, while an immigrant from the Dominican Republic wanted to petition for a relative.
"We noticed in the area that there aren't too many resources to get infor mation on immigration issues," Kukulka said. "We're targeting the low-income population, those who cannot afford an attorney."
Kukulka said two employees, Alvania Hilario and Bazinet, were trained through the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. They're also in the process of getting accreditation from the Board of Immigration Appeals, the highest U.S. administrative body for interpreting and applying immigration laws. The accreditation allows them to represent clients in legal immigration matters.
An attorney has also agreed to help pro bono when there are more complex issues, he said.
"We would not help people do something that's illegal," said Kukulka. "All we could do is give them information, what options they have and what their status is in this county."
Kukulka said some immigrants have been the victim of scams in which they pay someone to fill out paperwork or provide a service but don't get anything in return. In most of these cases, Kukulka said, the victim is so afraid that the crime goes unreported.
Bazinet said they've been getting inquiries from immigrants when they learn what they have to offer. "They're relieved that they don't have to go to Hartford to get help," she said.
Hilario said many immigrants are confused and unaware of their rights.
"We're here, able and willing to help," Hilario said. "Some don't know the law ... that they can be helped."