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Jamaica program gives abused women legal aid

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"It's really an area that's desperately needed," said Alizabeth Newman, director of the Immigrant Initiatives program at the City University of New York School of Law in Flushing.Without proper papers, immigrant women who suffer from domestic violence are afraid they may be deported and therefore are hesitant to come forward, said Jenny Robertson, who has helped three battered women as part of Newman's class this school year."There's always fear," she said. "I think it takes a lot to come in for the free services."Newman and her students currently are working to spread the word with two organizations: Pragati, which works with South Asian women and is based in Forest Hills, and Sepa Mujeres, which helps Latinas out of Hempstead, L.I. "The more outreach we do, it definitely adds a ray of hope," Newman said.The approach Newman and her students take depends on the cultural norms of the community and how insulated it is, the professor said. With the Latina organization, they simply distributed fliers in the neighborhood but with the South Asians, "we wouldn't dare mention domestic violence," Newman said. Instead, they invite women to discussions about general immigration issues and then address physical abuse when appropriate.Battered immigrant women now have two options to gain legal status: self-petitioning and applying for a U visa. In other cases, immigrants have to find a sponsor to gain a work visa or green card, but the federal government has for years allowed battered women to apply themselves without an endorsement. The U visas were created more recently and could lead to permanent residency, although the regulations are still being worked out, Newman said. With immigration laws becoming harsher since 1996, the self-petitions and U visas represent a "small window" of opportunity, Robertson added. Unfortunately, there are not enough lawyers who know how to handle such cases, Newman said. "This is a particularly difficult area for attorneys," she said. "I think it requires more patience by the lawyer."The workshop at the bar association, which was attended by a dozen attorneys, was the first attempt to remedy the situation by providing training, and Newman and her students hope to provide other sessions. They are also holding free 10-week workshops at their school for the women themselves, in order to provide a safe environment while they prepare the cases for lawyers to take on. They will advise attorneys who are working in the field for the first time as their cases progress.The program is funded through federal grants, and Newman and her students are seeking more money so they can expand their efforts into the Latino and Arab communities in Queens."It's great legislation, but not enough people know about it," Robertson said of the self-petitions and U visas.Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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