Representatives from groups including the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, the Oregon Law Center, the Marandas Sinlapasai Garcia law office and the Mexican consulates in Portland and Boise volunteered their time at a free legal clinic for immigrants and refugees inside the Four Rivers Health Clinic Thursday, Aug. 8.

ONTARIO – A van full of 15 attorneys and advocates from the Portland area squeezed into the Four Rivers Health Clinic for a free legal clinic last Thursday. They were joined by representatives from the Mexican consulates in Portland and Boise.

The group volunteered to provide legal counseling to walk-in clients – immigrants and refugees from the Ontario area.

“We realized the need throughout the state and in Ontario is immense and it’s not being addressed properly,” said May Low, legal services manager at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization in Portland.

Events like this one, referred to as the “access to justice legal clinic,” are common in the Portland area, said Low, but it’s the first time the event has taken place in Ontario.

By the end of the day, 38 people from 20 different families had stopped by the legal clinic with immigration questions. Immigration attorneys helped clients fill out forms and answered questions about application fee waivers and other services.

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One client came to Thursday’s clinic asking for help with ID cards for a family of nine where seven of them were listed as having the same Jan. 1 birthday. Low explained that language and cultural differences are barriers to many families who are hoping to navigate the complex system of U.S. immigration.

The services provided Thursday can normally cost thousands of dollars, making it prohibitive for most refugee families to seek help, said Low, adding, “The fact that we’re here is significant because we’re helping them accomplish something that could seem overwhelming.”

The number of refugees in Ontario has grown in recent years as cities in the western and central part of the state are too pricey, said Djimet Dogo, director of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization’s Africa House.

There are currently around 158 refugees in the Ontario area, said Dogo, and more are expected to settle soon.

“Pretty much every refugee in Ontario has a job,” Dogo said, but most are employed working the graveyard shift and many families live together, he added, so they may not seem as visible in the community.

IRCO opened a satellite office in Ontario last year to meet increased demand in the area. 

In an assessment last year, Dogo said local refugee families pointed to several obstacles to accessing services, including language barriers and a lack of interpreters.

Representatives from the Mexican consulate echoed these sentiments.

“Someone in Los Angeles might already have relatives or friends settled there so it’s easy to get referrals for services, but in certain areas of Oregon there are a lot of first generation immigrants that don’t necessarily know where to go,” said Helietta Gonzalez, Mexican consul for protection and legal affairs in Portland.

Mexico has 50 consulates in the U.S. The Portland consulate covers all Oregon counties except for Malheur, Baker, Union and Wallowa. Those four counties are represented by the Mexican consulate in Boise. 

Gonzalez said the consulates are often the first point of contact for Mexican immigrants in need, particularly those who live in rural areas with less access to resources.

Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: yadira@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.

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