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Alum Abby Conger (MDiv. '17) Featured in News for Nonprofit Startup Offering Immigration Services

September 22, 2017

The following was featured in the Salem News.

Nonprofit Comes to Salem to Offer Immigration Services

By Dustin Luca Staff Writer, Salem News

SALEM — As a sanctuary city debate heats up this election season, two Salem organizations are stepping up to make things smoother for undocumented residents throughout the North Shore.

Open Door Immigration Services, a nonprofit firm formed over the course of the last few months, will host a launch party at The House of the Seven Gables this Saturday.

The new firm has offices over on Wharf Street. Its sole purpose, according to Executive Director Abby Conger is "helping immigrants access free or low-cost immigration legal services."

"We do stuff like giving people consultations, helping them figure out what their options are or not, unfortunately, help them from getting ripped off by people selling a service they don't qualify for," Conger said.

She stressed that she and her staff, however, are not immigration attorneys.

Many people come seeking help in applying for citizenship and hoping an expert would look over their application, "or more often (have someone) sit down with them and help them go through everything start to finish," Conger explained.

"I myself am not an attorney, but I'm accredited to sit down with people and offer immigration services, and refer people out on bigger cases. And we can do it for little to no cost for the client," she said, noting she's accredited by the Department of Justice.

The two staff members listed on the firm's website are Conger and Sarah Sotelo. The firm itself is outgrowth of their involvement with Highrock North Shore, an evangelical church on Lafayette Street. Conger is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, while Sotelo works in the admissions department there and is a graduate of Gordon College.

The firm is a separate entity from the church — and they say there's no formal affiliation — but they do share mailing addresses, office space and often share staff members, according to Conger.

"We received our accreditation (through the Department of Justice to offer legal services) back on June 9 and have been slowly starting to meet with people since then," Conger said. "Just with the start of the school year, and people being back in town, we wanted to do a big kickoff party."

In a similar vein, an immigration workshop sponsored by the No Place for Hate committee will be held Oct. 3.

"Right now, I've got four or five experts... an immigration lawyer, someone from High Rock," said committee chairman Jeff Cohen.

Both events come about a month and a half from when Salem voters will decide on the city's new Sanctuary for Peace ordinance. The ordinance, which has become a highly divisive topic in the city, reinforces existing city policies to not seek out immigration documents from people requesting routine city services or during public safety emergencies.

Supporters of the ordinance say it gives undocumented residents peace of mind, knowing they can report crimes without being targeted for deportation. Opponents say it opens the city up to federal persecution and loss of funds, and doesn't change anything the city does now. Further, they say it just attracts more undocumented residents.

"Why are we doing it? We think it's a good time to do it in October," Cohen replied in regard to the upcoming workshop. "People think we're a political group, and I always say everything is political — but we feel it's appropriate, because we think it's a bigger conversation than just sanctuary."

That, and there's a need, according to Cohen.

Those sentiments were echoed by Ana Nuncio, manager of Settlement Partnerships at The House of the Seven Gables. Throughout its history, the House has aligned itself with efforts supporting immigrants coming into the city, and Open Door Immigration Services is in a way reflective of that history, she said.

"It does away with that notion that people who are here undocumented or illegally are doing that by choice, that they don't want to be (documented), that they want to be hidden," Nuncio said. "Something like this — this organization — just simply stands that on its head."

The House isn't officially aligned with the immigration firm, according to Nuncio. Rather, it's just offering to host the kickoff event.

Conger explained some of the existing options for how does an undocumented resident can become documented.

"Some people do have an option through maybe marriage or a close family member," she said. "There are some barriers to overcome, like unlawful presence in the United States, but for immediate family members, that's usually waived."

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) act, which the Trump administration had considered ending, also went a long way in providing a path for undocumented residents to remain in the country.

"Let's look at DACA, what the arrangement was with kids," Nuncio said. "They basically were given work permits and permission to work in the United States. That pathway, however, is under threat."

If that option is ultimately eliminated, there is no other legal pathway, she said.

"Right as of this moment, I don't know of a single one, other than maybe through asylum seekers — where if the person were sent back (to their country of origin), they'd face injury or death," Nuncio said. "I've been told by lawyers there is no pathway. We have to fix the immigration system."

The launch party is Saturday at 115 Derby St. from 7 to 9 p.m. For more information on Open Door Immigration Services, visit odisma.org or call 978-219-2355. The No Place for Hate workshop will be held at City Hall Annex, 120 Washington St., on Tuesday, Oct. 3 at 5:30 p.m.

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.