Helping People

Helping immigrants with legal issues is their calling

Raúl Hernández of Catholic Legal Services helps Pedro Linares Zelaya fill out a U.S. citizenship application online.
Raúl Hernández of Catholic Legal Services helps Pedro Linares Zelaya fill out a U.S. citizenship application online.

Raúl Hernández risked his life to leave Cuba to get to Miami on the Mariel boatlift. He stepped off with just his toothbrush and a piece of paper with his family’s telephone numbers sewn into his underwear.

Almost immediately, the former physician embarked on a career helping children who had been sent here without their parents. After working almost 30 years with refugee resettlement agencies, he retired.

But he didn’t stay idle for long.

He now volunteers with Catholic Legal Services, helping immigrants become American citizens.

“Service is important, I feel the obligation and the privilege to give back,” he said. “I’m so lucky, escaping Cuba, being free, having a second chance at life. If I can, I feel I need to share that with others.”

Catholic Legal Services, a nonprofit under the Archdiocese of Miami, has been helping immigrants obtain asylum, establish legal residency and become citizens since 1994. Initially focusing on the Haitian community escaping Haiti, the nonprofit now offers services to Cubans, Colombians, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Venezuelans and others, averaging 2,200 new sign-in visits at its crowded downtown Miami office.

The organization employs 19 attorneys and has branch offices in Doral and Broward.

At a recent outreach event at St. Thomas University, Hernández met Rosario Corrales and her 101-year-old mother, Juana Hernández. Corrales sought help applying for her mother’s citizenship.

Corrales, a native of Honduras, lives in a small apartment in Little Havana with her mother. Juana Hernández doesn’t talk much and is hard of hearing, but she said she wants to become a citizen to petition her two sons who continue to live in Honduras, amid ever-surging violence.

“I want them to come,” she said speaking in Spanish. “They’re just two.’’

Corrales said her brothers, who are in their 50s, are ready to work.

“Hispanics, most of them, are people who are ready to work. Like me, when I came into this country 42 years ago, and like my children,” she said.

The process of naturalization can be expensive and complicated. The 21-page application, which costs about $600 to file, has an array of detailed questions where one mistake could lead to application delays, rejection of naturalization or even deportation proceedings.

The team filled out Juana Hernández’s paperwork and applied for a fee waiver on her behalf. Corrales wasn’t aware her mother was eligible as a Medicare recipient.

Randy McGrorty, attorney and director of Catholic Legal Services, said the organization’s sole focus is immigration proceedings.

Not everyone is eligible for free services, and 20 percent of the organization’s funding comes from clients, he said. A person may, depending on his or her income, receive full financial backing or may be asked to contribute a portion of the costs.

“The ones who give us the money tell us who we can serve and how many people,” McGrorty said. “When we have a client who contributes their widow’s mite, we’re accountable to no one, except that client. It empowers the client and it helps us focus on serving their needs.”

McGroty said the organization has faced pushback in the past from people who oppose immigration. But he dismissed their arguments, saying it is part of the Catholic faith to help others, especially immigrants.

“The 2-year-old Jesus who went to Egypt would’ve been a classic undocumented asylum seeker,” he said. “This is an immigrant church — our faith was carried on boats, rafts and airplanes from other lands. Not only is it our history, it’s our future.”

Raúl Hernández added that America is a land of immigrants who come ready to work.

“Every immigrant comes with a loaf of bread under their arms,” he said. “It’s silly and not too smart not to increase the participation of people in this state.”

For him, America represented a second chance at life, after being “a fourth-class citizen” under the Castro dictatorship.

“For the first time, I was able to be free, to vote, to be a person, to hold a passport, to be recognized as a citizen of this incredible nation,” he said. “I could cry. Every single day I get up and I feel blessed to be able to be here.”

Getting involved

What: Catholic Legal Services, 25 SE Second Ave., Suite 220, Miami.

Contact: 305-373-1073, ext. 225;