Future murky for Littleton immigrant center

Program provides civics, English lessons; funding in doubt amid city shortfall

David Gilbert
dgilbert@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 5/4/20

For years, the Littleton Immigrant Resources Center has helped legal immigrants learn English, find jobs and become American citizens. Now, amid an unprecedented economic crisis that stands to …

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Future murky for Littleton immigrant center

Program provides civics, English lessons; funding in doubt amid city shortfall

Posted

For years, the Littleton Immigrant Resources Center has helped legal immigrants learn English, find jobs and become American citizens.

Now, amid an unprecedented economic crisis that stands to decimate city finances, the center could be on the chopping block.

The LIRC, housed in the basement of Bemis Public Library, offers a wide range of services to immigrants, including English classes, civics classes, and most importantly, assistance in the lengthy and complex process of obtaining American citizenship -- at far lower cost than most immigration attorneys charge.

The LIRC has drawn accolades for years. It was recognized by Harvard University's “Bright Ideas” program. Senator Michael Bennet, who visited in 2013, cited it as a model for immigrant assistance provisions in a bipartisan immigration reform bill.

Read 'Littleton immigrant center offers American dream' from July 2018

But when Bemis Library shut down as efforts to contain COVID-19 grew in mid-March, the center shut down, too. In mid-April, when the City of Littleton announced it would furlough 58 city employees, four out of five of the LIRC's paid staff were on the list. Only director Glaucia Rabello remained on duty.

With the city facing a multi-million-dollar budget shortfall as sales tax revenue plummets amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the center's funding is in question.

“It isn't the city's responsibility to fund nonprofits,” said Littleton Mayor Jerry Valdes. “Even before the pandemic, our five-year budget projections didn't look good. We have buildings that need replacing. That's where we should be spending our money. If people want this kind of thing, it should be up to private donations.”

The center has had its own funding problems. Founded in 2005 as an outgrowth of the Littleton Leadership Retreat, a now-defunct city brainstorming group, the LIRC initially provided a small range of referral services to immigrants.

But after landing a two-year, $250,000 grant from U.S. Customs and Immigration Services in 2012, the center greatly expanded its services, and added several staff members specially trained in filing citizenship applications. The City of Littleton matched the grant, adding $125,000 each year from the city's general fund to support the center's efforts.

The center's grant was renewed in 2014 and 2016. But in 2018, USCIS declined to renew the grant, saying that while the LIRC scored high marks in most eligibility criteria, it fell short of student attendance goals for follow-up tests after citizenship classes.

Read 'Fear, loss of funds challenge Littleton immigrant center' from April 2019

Littleton City Council then agreed to fully fund the center -- to the tune of roughly $300,000 a year -- through 2020, with the goal of finding more outside funding. Those efforts have so far come up short.

“It's what you call budget creep,” Valdes said. “It was already due for some hard conversations.”

There is no official move to cut the center's funding at the moment, said City Manager Mark Relph, but the day may be drawing close.

“It's an amazing program,” Relph said. “We take great pride in it. But it's simply a lower priority than other city functions. We're preparing for a reduction in service across the city, and the LIRC is under review.”

Losing the center would be a blow to the immigrant community during a tough time, said Julia Guzman, a Littleton immigration attorney who has an ongoing but loose relationship with the LIRC.

“It's a great resource for people to finish some big steps” in the immigration process, Guzman said. “They're able to complete a process they've been on for years without breaking the bank or messing up the paperwork.”

Guzman said she has been informed that the LIRC will refer clients to her during the shutdown, though she has yet to receive any calls. USCIS is still processing citizenship applications during COVID-19 shutdowns, she said, but interviews and biometric submissions required for such applications are on hold.

How many citizenship applications were stalled by the LIRC shutdown during the pandemic are difficult to ascertain -- director Glaucia Rabello said city spokesperson Kelli Narde would have to approve an interview request. Narde repeatedly denied or did not respond to requests by Colorado Community Media to speak to Rabello.

Internal emails obtained by CCM through a request under state open-records laws show Rabello twice asked city officials about speaking for this article, but was told not to respond. Narde told CCM that Rabello “doesn't want to do an interview so we'll have to leave it at that.”

The center was a godsend to Yesenia Melendez, originally from Mexico, who earned American citizenship last year at age 27 with help from the LIRC.

“I wanted to vote and to participate in all the benefits of citizenship,” said Melendez, a mother of two. “Life was hard in Mexico. America is beautiful, and my children have better lives here. I'm so proud to be a citizen.”

Replacing the center with a self-supporting nonprofit would be a heavy lift, said Susan Thornton, a former Littleton mayor who was instrumental in founding the LIRC.

“Very few places have staff certified to help apply for citizenship,” Thornton said. “Lawyers can do that, but it costs a lot of money.”

Thornton also founded Immigrant Pathways Colorado, a nonprofit that supports immigrants with small grants for job training and other goals, and counts Mayor Jerry Valdes among its donors. Rabello sits on IPC's board.

IPC gave the LIRC a $5,000 grant last year to help hire an English teacher, but Thornton said it would be impossible for her group to fully fund the LIRC.

Thornton said losing the center would be a sad moment for Littleton.

“We've been considered for many years a leader in the state for reaching out to new people in our community,” Thornton said. “It would be tragic to lose that leadership position.”

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