Amsterdam

Important work continues for Amsterdam-based immigration attorney

Fabrizia Rodriguez talks about what it’s been like to work with clients during the pandemic
Fabrizia Rodriguez works from her home office during the COVID-19 crisis.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Fabrizia Rodriguez works from her home office during the COVID-19 crisis.

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie

AMSTERDAM — Physical distancing measures have rendered some levels of community connection nearly impossible, as attorney Fabrizia Rodriguez knows all too well.

Rodriguez runs her practice, but spends much of her week working on immigration cases through Centro Civico, an Amsterdam-based nonprofit. She’s in charge of the Legal Defense Project there, and people from the local Hispanic and Latino communities often stop by with questions. Rodriguez also does translation work for people in the community — all pro bono. 

Since COVID-19 began spreading in the Capital Region, she’s had to work from her Saratoga County home, and the distance has been difficult. Yet she’s finding ways to work through it and connect with her clients during this chaotic time. 

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The Connecticut native talked recently about what it’s been like to work with clients during the pandemic.

Q: What drew you to law?

A: My parents are from Argentina so they immigrated to the United States, and since I could speak I was their translator. I would go to different places to translate for them, job interviews, my school meetings. … Anywhere we were going, I was translating, especially with my mother. 

From that very young age, I was constantly seeing people [being unhelpful] to my parents. I said “I want to be the person who doesn’t need to ask questions. I want to be able to access information and to look up things and understand things on my own.” 

Rising to the Challenge: Faces of the COVID-19 crisis in the Capital Region

I remember we used to drive by our court in town and I [asked] my dad, “Who’s that?” He would say “Those are lawyers. Those are judges.” He explained the whole process to me, and ever since then I was infatuated with the courthouse. 

I did not expect [to go into] immigration law, though. I wanted to go into family practice; I love children, I love helping families. But I gravitated toward immigration because of the language barrier. I think now there [are] a couple more Spanish speaking attorneys in the Albany area, but when I started eight years ago I was one of very few bilingual and bicultural attorneys. 

Q: How did you get started working for Centro Civico?

A: When I first moved here, I was still in law school and I had just worked for Liberty ARC. So I was spending a lot of time in the community and people would tell me, “You should get to know Centro Civico. They do a lot of work for the Hispanic community.” I did a lot of community action and advocacy in my undergrad work in Connecticut. … So I went down [to Centro Civico] and I just showed up and introduced myself, and was lucky enough that the CEO was there at the time. Her name was Ladan Alomar. She’s retired since but she met with me. We talked about my background and Centro Civico. She took my resume and was going to help me get referrals and make sure the community knew that I was available to help as a bilingual individual. But a couple months after that she called and offered me a position in one of her health programs. So ever since then, I’ve had a relationship with Centro Civico in different capacities. 

They now have the grant for immigration work. So she called me [last May] and said, “We’ve got this funding now. We’d love for you to come back with us.”

Q: What did that involve?

A: New York state has the Office for New Americans under the Department of State. The Office for New Americans supports New York residents who are immigrants. They’ve existed for about six years now and they initially started with programs to help individuals become citizens. So they would offer language classes, they would help them with the exam, they would prepare their application.

It has since grown in the past couple years to now include legal defense work and that part is called Liberty Defense Project. They fund attorneys all across the state to [each] take on 20 to 30 cases per year and support the clients who have an application pending in immigration court or with the USCIS [United States Citizenship and Immigration Services]. 

The Mohawk Valley is the area that I cover and has a large amount of immigrant individuals, and we didn’t have an attorney in the area to take that on. All the other attorneys are in Albany [or] Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, New York City. [They] figured out that there was this huge gap. They called Centro Civico and said, “We have this gap and no one has signed up to take it on. Do you think you guys could take it on?” That’s when Ladan called me. 

Q: How many cases can you take on per year? Is it still in that 20-30 range?

A: I’m expected [to take] 20-30, but I will be really honest, right now we have a caseload of about 55, 60 maybe. I’ve doubled it and you won’t see too many attorneys doing that, but I have one part-time assistant through Centro Civico, and she and I agreed that we try to meet the [clients’] needs. 

Even though we have 60, we do prioritize. I explain to my clients, “We are going to take on your case, but it’s not going to be an overnight situation. We’ll take it on, we’ll help you walk through the steps for it.” If it’s something urgent, we usually tell them to seek private counsel because we are limited; I only have one part-time support staff and there’s only one of me. 

When I go to court, for example, that’s a 12-hour day for me because of the travel. That takes a good chunk of my hours for the week from the other clients who need me. That’s just one example. 

We’ve been taking on more [cases]. We don’t have to. I know [some] other agencies just create a waiting list. … I don’t like to do that. I think everyone’s issue is important. So we give them the consult, they sit one-on-one with us. At least they have the facts.

Q: How has your job changed since COVID-19 started spreading?

A: We’re doing everything online [and by] phone. It works. I just feel like it’s slow. 

We have a few new clients since COVID and it’s a slow process because we’ll do the consult by phone. We’ll tell them what they need. I’ll mail them a list of what we need and then we’ve got to wait for the mail. We’re playing back-and-forth with mail, versus when we’re in the office we’d receive it in the same day. It slows everything down. 

Other than that, everything’s closed now, so I have four or five individuals who were going for their citizenship exam in March or April and those all got postponed. So those are cases we were almost done with and we have to carry them on because we don’t know when [things are] going to reopen. 

Q: Is that stressful for the clients who were ready to take the test?

A: It is because a lot of them, believe it or not most of them, are excited about voting in November. So that’s been the first question they’ll ask me, “Will we get this done in time for me to be able to register to vote?” They were very interested in getting it done so they could vote in November. We’ll see how that plays out.

Q: What’s been the most challenging part of trying to help clients during this pandemic?

A: I really enjoy [meeting] face to face and I know my clients do, too. I think there’s a lot of reasons why they seek me, [but especially] because [I’m bilingual]. They feel comfortable. They don’t have to use a translating machine or they don’t have to bring someone in with them to translate. They’re giving out personal information and they just don’t want someone else to know their business.

I think talking by phone, individuals are worried [about] who they’re talking to on the other end. Is it really Fabrizia Rodriguez? A lot of people also don’t trust the cellphone service.

The other big frustrating thing to me is not being able to go out to the farms. The area I cover has a lot of farms, dairy farms especially, and [the employees] can’t come to me. Those individuals work every day. Their only [time] off is when they sleep. So I was going at least twice a month to check on them and someone always had a concern or a question. … Again, it’s that face to face. They wanted to come speak to me, ask a lot of questions, get some answers and talk about their issues. So the [lack of] face-to-face [meetings], I think, really hurts the work I’m doing. 

 

Q: And there’s only so much you can do with video chats.

A: I did start a WhatsApp [chat]. People from all over the world use it, so for my immigrant community, they’re [more] familiar with that app versus Facebook Messenger or anything else. So I started a new group chat for my immigrant families, for providers like myself and health care providers, or we share things about the free food options to still keep in touch with them. I’m hoping they’ll funnel questions [through there]. 

Q: Does the CARES Act help any of your clients?

A: Not at all. It’s actually very frustrating. … What happened was, to be qualified for the stimulus check you have to have a valid Social Security number. The kicker is, some people file their taxes with their taxpayer ID number and then they list their dependents. They understand that they’re not given the stimulus check for themselves, because they’re not U.S. citizens. Yet their U.S. citizen children aren’t going to get the $500 each for the mere fact that their parent doesn’t have a valid Social Security number. 

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I have a lot of U.S. citizens who married someone who doesn’t have a Social Security number or legal status, and they’re my clients because we’re in the process of doing the paperwork. The process takes [a] long [time]. We’re talking a couple years. … I have a bunch of [clients] who are U.S. citizens, work, pay taxes, have U.S. citizen children, and because they file jointly with their undocumented spouse they won’t get the stimulus check at all. Because of the mere fact that they filed jointly. 

According to the Migration Policy Institute, there’s 10 million mixed families in that scenario. I know when I got this information, right away I contacted my congressmen to let them know. I know they rushed through this, but they didn’t realize some of the consequences, that now U.S. citizen children aren’t going to get funding and the spouse isn’t. I know it’s a lot of work for the IRS to funnel through, but at this point that’s something they should have thought about.

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