University YMCA New American Welcome Center

From left, University YMCA employees Carol Nunn, Jennifer Romine and Megan Flowers hang a banner announcing the New American Welcome Center, one of 12 in the country, in March 2017 outside the facility in Chamapign.

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CHAMPAIGN — The University YMCA already has a diverse set of services it can offer people in the community. It can now add immigration legal services to that list.

Staff members Gloria Yen and Zoe Foote have completed over 500 hours of rigorous studying, observing and interning, all in the pursuit to better educate themselves on the country’s immigration laws.

This has led to Yen and Foote achieving the status of U.S. Department of Justice-accredited immigration legal representatives for low-income and indigent residents in the community.

It was not an easy feat, and it took more than a year to accomplish.

According to Foote, an immigrant services coordinator, it all started when staff from the University Y noticed that the organization needed to grow its capacity to help immigrants with fraud issues and a way to make them feel secure.

According to Yen, director of the New American Welcome Center at the University YMCA, they noticed that 50 percent of calls received in regard to immigration had to do with legal matters.

Yen and Foote went to work in November 2017.

To get better educated, they attended webinars, observed immigration attorneys and completed workshops, among various other tasks. It took them more than 500 hours to become well-versed in the U.S. immigration code, whose complexity they compared to the tax code.

The code “is very complicated; it’s very flawed; it’s very expensive; it’s very strict,” Foote said.

Yen and Foote continued to study immigration law until May 2019, when the U.S. Department of Justice finally recognized the University Y as a place that provides immigration legal representation.

Both agreed it was demanding work, but that they had a lot of fun and gained great experience.

“It was galvanizing for me to work with pro bono attorneys,” Yen said. “They were able to provide insight with legal challenges and barriers.”

“As complicated and as frustrating it can be,” Foote said, “I just fell in love with it all, and it has its good rewards.”

Yen and Foote plan to use the knowledge they gained in three different ways.

— The University Y will provide legal services for immigrants, should it be deemed necessary.

— It will provide a pathway-to-citizenship program, by the way of citizenship instructional courses and naturalization preparation.

— A training cohort will be created that helps prepare anyone working with immigrants.

Foote said they will also provide legal clinics at the Urbana Free Library at 6 p.m. on the first Monday of every month. The clinics will not be solely based on immigration law, and will delve into other areas, such as criminal law.

With more than 24,000 immigrants in Champaign County alone, Foote said they are expecting to help over 100 people a year, though Yen noted this number could grow.