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Mar 09, 2017 | Will Harrison

Legal Advice and Listening Helps Empower Austin Hispanics

Lawyer Jim Harrington doesn’t mince words as he assists a family comprised of legal and undocumented immigrants in filling out power of attorney and caregiver affidavits. 

“These forms need to be clear and correct, or they’ll find any reason to separate you from your children.” Proyecto Santiago was created to protect, but also to inform and empower a community looking for answers.

Proyecto Santiago is a new expression of Christian community developing through St. James’ Episcopal Church. Informing families on issues facing the Hispanic community is one of Proyecto Santiago’s key efforts to connect and serve those in the neighborhood. These communities must find some way to live and exist in a post-election, Donald Trump presidency. President Trump’s hardline campaign promises on immigration have come to fruition in the form of illegal and documented immigrants alike finding their lives thrown into upheaval by ICE, or the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency   

The effects of this agency’s work are being felt all around Austin. The Austin American-Statesman reported on February 22 that federal documents obtained by the newspaper revealed U.S. immigration agents arrest a higher number of people in Austin without prior criminal convictions than in any other region of the country. This news preceded the results of a national operation in the city where more than 51 people were arrested in an ICE operation known as Cross Check. 

Among the 51 arrested, only 23 possessed criminal convictions or violent offenses.

Harrington’s mission in the area has always centered on helping those whose rights are being infringed upon. He began the Texas Civil Rights Project in 1990 and has worked as a human rights lawyer for more than 40 years. He’s now using that experience to educate and inform the Hispanic community of St James, having formed Proyecto Santiago almost a year ago. The goal was to inform bilingual and Spanish-speaking members of the congregation alike on consumer information, how to interact with the police and government agencies, and addressing community problems.

This particular meeting on March 4 was to assist with filling out legal documents for family members, such as special power of attorney forms, but also having personal information organized and a plan in motion for when detainment is imminent.

The room was filled with about 30 members of the Hispanic congregation—making up about seven families—each a mix of those that spoke English, were undocumented, or legal citizens of the United States. A low hum of anxiety and fear hovered over the community hall for the three-hour meeting, but Harrington finds hope in the response and turnout. 

“There’s a lot of worry about what’s going to happen in the future,” Harrington said. “Still, nobody tonight was afraid to ask questions. I asked everyone where they were from and the response was forthcoming.” 

The community views the church as a safe place, which is something that the church as a whole has done well with to this point, according to Harrington. He thinks the key to helping protect and inform the Hispanic community around Austin is to organize the congregation as a whole, but also to ask questions and be empathic towards the plight of our immigrant neighbors.

When asked what those who wish to help can do, Harrington thinks the key is understanding. “In this immigration story, we talk about what happens north of the border. We never talk about the story from the border down, and the violence and suffering that drives people to the United States.” 

For Harrington, helping is as simple as showing that you care. “What we did today is easy to replicate, and left these people feeling empowered to help others. They wouldn’t have gotten that feeling from just going to a lawyer. Now, these same people tell me ‘I’m going to bring more people next time.’”

For more information on Proyecto Santiago, visit St James' Proyecto Santiago