By Steve Ritchie
The uncertainty about U.S. immigration and deportation policies has Fernando and Susannah Ghio working overtime to provide legal assistance to their clients at Somos Hispanas Unidas, 512 N. First St., Silverton.
The Ghios work with local residents and families who need help with their immigration status.
When asked how many people receive help at Somos Hispanas Unidas, the couple looked at each other and chuckled, as if they couldn’t believe the answer.
“1,500 people in a little less than two years,” Susannah said. “On an average day, we do six to seven consultations.”
The free consultation allows the Ghios to learn about each client, and to determine the best course of action for them.
“Not all will become clients or are qualified to seek immigration proceedings,” Susannah said, noting they currently have 400 active client files.
One reason for the large number of people seeking help is that there are few such resources in Oregon. Woodburn-based PCUN is the only other agency addressing the issue locally, and PCUN only handles the first stage of the legalization appeal, not the entire process. Catholic Charities in Portland serves many undocumented immigrants, but the Ghios say a client can wait six months for the initial appointment. Somos Hispanas Unidas usually can see a new person within three weeks.
Another benefit for their clients is the modest fee for those who pursue immigration assistance. Fernando says a private attorney will typically charge between $3,500 and $4,000 to handle an immigration case. The Ghios charge around $500 to $700 for the same service. Finances are an issue for the nonprofit Somos Hispanas.
“There are no grants for immigration services,” Fernando said. “No money from the state, no money from the federal government. The program runs (because of) our participation and the small fees that we charge if they can afford it. If they can’t afford it, we won’t charge them.”
A Passion for Their Work
The Ghios came to Oregon from Argentina, settling in Silverton 26 years ago. Fernando was a lawyer in Argentina, and has a law degree from Willamette University. Susannah has a legal background but has mainly worked in education since moving here. The Ghios are “accredited representatives,” which qualifies them to represent low-income families in immigration proceedings. They are passionate about the people they serve.
“The people who come to this agency are good people,” Susannah said. “We don’t serve criminals.”
With her education background and school contacts, Susannah is able to help young people figure out to not only their immigration situation, but also the “right path.”
“That is what is unique about this agency,” Susannah said. “It is not just about immigration or immigration advice. We always give guidelines and a pathway to the families. I always encourage them to pursue education. My passion is to see them grow as citizens. With documents or without documents, we need to see them grow as citizens. We want everybody to be a good citizen and follow the rules.”
The couple spreads this message by doing free workshops around the state. They did 83 workshops in 2016. The two-hour workshops are usually followed by personal consultations, which can last well into the evening.
Serving the Latino Community
While immigration advocacy is the focus of Somos Hispanas Unidas, the organization offers other programs. Nuestros Abuelos (“Our Grandparents”) serves Hispanic elders on Thursdays. Susannah says most of the seniors are American citizens who speak only Spanish, so they have trouble accessing services and are often isolated. On the last Thursday of each month, the 15-20 participants cook and share the food with everyone who attends. The Ghios purchase the food out of their own pockets. A third program, “Helping Families,” is more counseling-oriented. It can range from helping a woman cope with a new baby to connecting people to resources. Sometimes, Ghio says, clients just need to talk to someone in their native tongue.
The election day incident at Silverton High School had a surprising impact on Somos Hispanas Unidas. “After the incident at SHS we did receive a lot of calls from Silvertonians supporting us and showing empathy for the immigrants in our area,” Fernando said. “It surprised us.”
A local gallery owner provided a donation for Nuestros Abuelos and referred potential volunteers. Others stopped by and asked the Ghios if they were OK. There was only one negative contact – an anonymous letter with a vague threat: “You need to be careful if you are going to serve Hispanics.” Susannah shrugged off the letter and election day uproar, saying, “It was an isolated incident (at SHS) and the administrators handled it very well.”Apart from a $500 donation from the Judy Schmidt Memorial from the Silverton Chamber of Commerce, and support from the Silverton Friends Church, the Ghios say they don’t ask for or receive a lot of financial support.
DACA & the Future.
There are about 800,000 “Dreamers” in the U.S. These are young people who were brought into the country as children before 2007, and educated in the U.S. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) gave them with a renewable two-year period of safety from deportation and eligibility for a work permit, provided they had not committed a serious crime and did not pose a national security threat. Whether President Trump will follow through on his promise to deport them remains to be seen. Many are concerned DACA created a registry making it relatively easy to find them if the government decides to take action.“We are in a very uncertain time now,” Susannah said. “But we hope. Fernando and I are strong believers in democracy. It is not just the executive branch. We have the justice and the legislative branches. This gives us hope.”
Hope for Immigration Reform
Susannah talks about the need for immigration reform with a story of driving home on an icy road. “But the people were in the fields working, 20 women and men working under those conditions with snow and ice. Not even gloves. But they are happy they can provide food for their kids in a legal way. They want to legally work and legally drive. They say, ‘Susannah we want to work.’
“Criminals need to pay for their crimes. But we have hard workers who are following the American dream and (we need to) help them. We never talk about amnesty. It’s about comprehensive immigration reform. People think the Hispanics want amnesty, (but) no, we never talk about amnesty. But if they work here for 10, 15, 20 years and pay their taxes and have kids who grew up here who don’t even speak Spanish, how in the world are they going to go back to (another) country? We hope the Congress will pass immigration reform.”