CHAMPAIGN — When Rebekah Niblock was a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she began teaching English as a second language to immigrants who were new to the community.
When she learned of their struggles — including not being paid, then threatened with deportation when they complained to their boss, as well as being abused by their American spouses — she decided to go to law school to become an immigration attorney.
"I wanted to provide them with trustworthy representation and help them fight the injustices they faced, sometimes on a daily basis," she said.
For the last few years, Niblock has been doing that as a staff attorney at the Immigration Project, the principal provider of affordable, quality legal assistance to the 100,000 immigrants residing in central and southern Illinois.
The nonprofit organization will be honored today with a Community Impact Award at the annual Immigrant Welcome Awards Ceremony in Urbana.
"They're very deserving," said Robert Kirby, a retired physician who nominated the agency for the award.
Kirby, who volunteers as an English as a Second Language teacher through the First Presbyterian Church in Champaign, has seen the need for legal help with everything from filling out forms correctly to understanding and navigating the American justice system, among his students and other immigrants in the community.
"The Immigration Project is one of the affordable places they can go to for help," he said. "These folks are very friendly and accessible and generous. ... In the private market, they could do very well. But they choose to use their time and talent to advocate for some of the most vulnerable in our community."
Established in 1995, the Immigration Project offers individual attorney consultations and evaluations on immigration issues; help with applications, including family reunification, employment authorization, legal permanent residency, naturalization and visas. The small staff of four attorneys, two immigration specialists and two AmeriCorps Vista volunteers guides people through the citizenship process; assists immigrants who are victims of domestic violence and other crimes such as sexual assault and human trafficking; and helps with special programs, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and provisional waivers.
Immigration law is very complex, said Charlotte Alvarez, the executive director since April and a staff attorney for the past two years.
"People need someone they can trust," Alvarez said, adding that without these services, low-income immigrants would struggle to access the help they need to keep their families together and better their lives.
"We have a very holistic approach," Niblock added.
If staff find clients who have suffered physical and/or psychological abuse, have medical issues or need some other type of assistance, they work with other agencies and organizations in the community to address that.
Niblock joined the Immigration Project in December 2013 and drove from Champaign to work in the office in Normal. But the need in the Champaign-Urbana area grew, so the agency opened a satellite office in Champaign in 2015.
"Champaign County has one of the largest immigrant populations in the state outside of Chicago. That includes those who are documented and undocumented. We're helping both," said Niblock, who staffed the office for 1 years by herself and now has help from AmeriCorps Vista volunteer Jesse Rose and intern Ximena Rivera, an attorney from Colombia, and a few volunteers.
This is the fourth semester Niblock has taught UI College of Law students in conjunction with Adjunct Professor Karla Fischer, an attorney and psychologist, who specializes in domestic violence. Through a partnership with the university, law students represent agency clients, predominantly victims of domestic violence and related trauma, providing them with one-on-one assistance on a weekly basis.
"We're able to serve more clients more quickly, and it's a great experience for the students both professionally and personally," Niblock said.
She also helped create the Domestic Violence Immigration Clinic, which grew out of the UI's Domestic Violence Clinic, where law students help investigate and prepare applications for visas and asylum for adult and youth victims of domestic violence and related trauma.