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Joe Surkiewicz: Legal help for Asian-Americans

The myth: Asian-Americans, the fastest-growing immigrant group in the U.S., are uniformly wealthy, well-educated and well-assimilated into American culture.

The reality? It’s very different: Nearly three-quarters of Asian-Americans are immigrants, more than a third speak English less than well, one out of every 10 Asian-American elders lives in poverty, and 10 percent do not have a high school diploma.

According to the Asian Pacific American Legal Resources Center in Washington, D.C., those disparities are even greater among newer immigrant groups from Southeast Asia. Nationally, fewer than 10 percent of refugees and immigrants from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam have college degrees, compared with 27 percent for whites and 43 percent for all Asian-Americans.

In other words, a lot of Asian-American immigrants are poor — and face daunting obstacles when faced with civil legal problems.

That’s where APALRC comes in. The nonprofit serves immigrant populations in the District of Columbia and surrounding suburbs in Maryland and Virginia with free civil legal services.

“The name betrays what our core purpose is — to help low-income Asian Americans who can’t afford to hire a lawyer for their civil legal needs,” said Executive Director Zenobia Lai.

“D.C. has plenty of legal services programs. But in 1998, the founders of this program saw that Asian-Americans couldn’t access legal services because of language and cultural reasons.”

The program initially started as a legal helpline, with Asian-American law students and lawyers working the phones. Since then, it has expanded, adding full-time lawyers and offering walk-in intake where volunteers meet with potential clients.

“My background goes back two decades in legal services,” said Lai, who last year came from Greater Boston Legal Services, where she ran its Asian Outreach Unit for 12 years. “I decided to add walk-in intake because we weren’t seeing the types of cases I saw in Boston.”

Face-to-face meetings are easier for many people who can’t articulate a message, or may not understand what the legal issue is. “So it’s easier if they bring in the papers,” she said. “It’s also easier for us to identify the legal issues by reviewing the documents.”

The two biggest legal-needs categories are family law and immigration.

“In at least three-quarters of our cases, immigration is part of the problem,” Lai said. “Even a non-immigration legal issue is often complicated by immigration. And not all other legal services programs provide help with immigration.”

Often, the problem is psychological.

“The client may have valid status when a legal issue comes up, but immigration is still a concern,” she said. “It’s hard for them not to worry about their immigration status or [worry] that their immigration status has a bearing in every aspect of their lives.”

For family law, each culture has a different tradition. “A lot of the problem is language, but it’s often cultural, too,” Lai explained. “In some sense, a housing issue may not be culturally bound, but it often is with family law.”

In some Asian-American communities, gender roles create a tremendous power inequality, making the decision to end a marriage, to seek a protective order, or to fight for custody and support that much more challenging, she said.

“Similar cultural issues also abound in public benefits matters,” Lai said. “Some groups are willing to take [benefits], others are against it. There’s a huge dichotomy.”

For example, Southeast Asians may have less of a problem applying for public benefits than Chinese or Korean people.

“The stigma is not as big for them because many of them came to the U.S. as refugees — public assistance is what they rely on to survive, at least during the initial resettlement years. With Chinese or Koreans, many immigrated to the U.S. and are not eligible for public assistance to begin with,” Lai said. “For them, being on welfare is a huge stigma.”

About half the program’s clients are from Maryland (and it gets funding from the Maryland Legal Services Corp. to support that work). The largest concentration is in Montgomery County — 60 percent or more. The next-biggest concentration is in Prince George’s County.

“But we’re even getting calls from Baltimore,” Lai said. “We tend to see more diversity in the client population and the legal issues in Prince George’s. Clients from Montgomery are traditionally family law, immigration, small-business issues.”

South Asian populations are growing fast everywhere, she said, noting that the Washington area has seen a 60 percent increase in the last decade.

“There’s a lot of diversity,” Lai said. “They come from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Their English proficiency varies, with those from Pakistan or Bangladesh more likely to have limited English proficiency. Also, there’s a big Filipino population in Prince George’s.”

Almost half of Maryland’s Asian-American population lives in Montgomery County. “So, we have an office in Wheaton and work with other providers,” Lai said. “We try to leverage with other social services providers. We’re working to build relationships with them.”

One challenge in Maryland is the scarcity of pro bono resources; lawyers who want to volunteer their services are always welcome, and the need expands beyond family and immigration law.

“The law firms in the D.C. suburbs of Maryland are smaller than those in Baltimore, so they may not be able to help,” Lai said. “We have small businesses contact us all the time with transactional legal issues. We want to refer them out and can’t.”

In fact, one of Lai’s long-term goals is to develop a community economic development practice.

“We have to help people to not be poor,” she said. “Maintaining a not-so-good situation is not a good strategy. We need to look at land use and make sure people aren’t pushed out of their communities. We need to help groups incorporate so they can help themselves.”

In the shorter term, Lai faces the same problems as other small nonprofits.

“Fundraising is a big part of my job,” she said. “Without money, we can’t have programs. We have three attorneys, no support staff and no legal director, so I do that — it’s the second part of my job, supervising the legal work of my attorneys. I’m also the administrator, the third part of my job.

“Ending poverty is patient work,” Lai said. “We need funding to pay for staff, as well as rent and phones. And we cannot fix the problems in two days.”

Joe Surkiewicz is the director of communications at Maryland Legal Aid. His email is