Eugenio Mollo says that growing up as the child of Italian immigrants profoundly affected him and his career path. “My parents lacked a formal education, but they are the smartest and most hardworking people that I know,” he says. “And so I grew up seeing immigrants who wanted to work hard and create a better life.”
Today, as managing attorney at Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE), he helps provide legal representation to low-income individuals in western Ohio. With its partner organization, Legal Aid of Western Ohio, ABLE worked on more than 9,000 cases in 2016, helping roughly 22,000 people. Thousands more benefited from information on the organization’s website and through community workshops and trainings.
We know that immigrants make local economies stronger, so when families are torn apart, it affects not only particular families but entire communities.
Many who receive assistance from ABLE each year are immigrants and migrant workers. However, because some of its clients are undocumented, the organization receives no federal funding for any of its clients. That means it cannot tap into funding from the Legal Services Corporation, an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. Luckily, there are donors and local agencies who care about this vulnerable population. Contributions from the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation and other organizations and individuals, as well as through local fundraising events all contribute to the annual operating budget of about $5 million.
“Low-income people should have the same legal rights and access to legal services as all others,” Mollo says. She believes that the immigration system should prioritize keeping families together. The Pew Research Center estimates that at least 9 million American children live in mixed-status families where one parent is undocumented. “We know that immigrants make local economies stronger, so when families are torn apart, it affects not only particular families but entire communities,” he says. As an example, he cites the high-profile deportation of Maribel Trujillo Diaz. ABLE is representing Trujillo Diaz, an undocumented mother of four children — all of them U.S. citizens — who was recently deported. She has no criminal record, and she fears for her safety in Mexico, where drug cartels have targeted her brother and father. Mollo questions the logic in deporting such a person. “She is hard working, and is deeply involved in her church, her community, and her family,” he says. “Removing her to Mexico does not make us stronger as a country. It does not make us safer as a country.”
Although parts of the current immigration system allow citizens or permanent residents to act as sponsors for their family members, Mollo says that the system faces a huge backlog in visa applications. Some have been waiting as long as 20 years for approval. “The line is too long,” he says. Further, he says, the U.S. limit of 226,000 family-sponsored visas per year is too low for a nation of 320 million. So is the per-country limit that says only 7 percent of each country’s visas granted per year may go toward sponsored family members. This is regardless of how many immigrants from a given country live in the United States. So, for example, Latino families from countries like Mexico are disproportionately affected — and kept apart for years. “Creating belonging for all of our families starts with us,” says Mollo. “It’s up to us to create communities where families can be together and where all families belong.”