About 30 people gathered Wednesday at St. Francis Spirituality Center as Sister Ellen Lamberjack received the first Edwin Vincent O'Hara Advocacy Award from National Catholic Rural Life Conference. James Ennis, executive director, made the presentation. The award takes its name from the founder of NCRLC.
In his opening remarks, Ennis gave a history of NCRLC, which originated in 1923. At that time, much of the population in North America lived on farms. The organization has been giving annual awards to farm families, but this is the first year to recognize an advocate of rural residents.
Lamberjack earned the award for serving as director of Project Hope and for her work as a Board of Immigration Appeals accredited representative, which lets her represent foreign nationals before the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Before accepting her award, Lamberjack explained the origins of Project Hope, which helps an average of 150 people each year.
"We started Project Hope Oct. 17, 2006. My office is located in the Zion Mennonite Church in Archbold, and they have been tremendous collaborators and supporters of Project Hope," Lamberjack said.
In order to practice immigration law, she had to obtain recognition for the site and accreditation for herself. Lamberjack had to document her immigration law experience and advocacy, prove ownership of a legal library and proof of adequate training. For her personal accreditation, she had to be a person of "good moral character," complete a thick application packet and send copies to West Virginia, to the district office in Detroit and to the district director in Cleveland.
"It they had put up any kind of hesitation, I would not have been accredited," Lamberjack said.
To prepare her for accreditation, Jeff Stewart, director and founder of Immigrant Worker Project, became her mentor in November 2006. Every case she worked on had to be reviewed by Stewart.
Her accreditation documents arrived Oct. 30, 2009, six weeks after they were filed. She still works with Stewart twice a month in his Bowling Green office.
"He reviewed an awful lot of cases. Now I don't need his review, but I use him as one of my expert technical assistants. He's always willing to answer my questions," Lamberjack said.
Nearly every weekday, Lamberjack can be found at the Archbold office. Project Hope is one of 200 U.S. affiliates of CLINIC, or Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc.
The network includes immigration attorneys and accredited representatives practicing immigration law. CLINIC also has a hotline Lamberjack can call when questions arise.
She said an attorney responds that day or the following day. All of her training was done through CLINIC.
Hundreds of immigrants have sought legal advice from Lamberjack during her four-plus years with Project Hope.
She said most are from Latin American countries, such as Mexico, Puerto Rico, Bolivia and Guatemala, but one was a native of South Korea. Another was from Russia. Rather than classes, Lamberjack likes to provide one-on-one instruction.
"We do a lot of tutoring. I do it myself or get people from the community, like Zion Mennonite Church. Some have become new citizens themselves. I have found that when we tutor, we meet the needs of the individual. Some need more (help) on the 100 questions they have to study. Some need more on being able to write in English. Some need more on reading. We just work on whatever they need the most," Lamberjack said. "We do prepare them for their citizenship test and interview."
The work can include "real sadnesses and real joys." The sadness comes when someone is deported or returns to their home country, only to be barred from re-entry to the United States, where family members are residing. The joys are when immigrants successfully obtain a permanent resident card, which allows a person to work, obtain a driver's license and have other privileges. That can be followed by official citizenship.
Right now, Lamberjack is working with families of five or six people who want to come into the U.S. together. Even if those cases are approved, it will take another five years for them to become citizens. Lamberjack said Project Hope has parties for individuals who pass the citizenship test. Sometimes, she transports clients to court or to the swearing-in ceremony.
Lamberjack is required to keep records of all her cases and clients at the Archbold office. To fund Project Hope, she does a lot of grant writing to supplement the modest fees she charges for her services. She keeps a scrapbook of all the programs and activities at the center and submits copies of clippings with the grant applications.
Also, Lamberjack has trained two aides who now can work for their own accreditation. Two more are interested in being trained, so she is looking for scholarship funds to assist them. In this way, she hopes the work she has done so far will continue after her retirement and into the future.
"I was humbled when Jim called me," Lamberjack said, alluding to her award.
Ennis said the call for applications went out last November. When Lamberjack's came in, he was impressed with her work. After a personal interview, he was even more impressed.
"The year before Sister Ellen moved to Archbold, Ohio, there had been 119 requests for her legal work in the immigration area. She knew something had to be done," Ennis told the gathering.
He also read a quote from her interview: "Immigrants need hope that one day they become U.S. citizens, instead of living in fear. Even if they have documents, until they become citizens, they are afraid of what can happen with their status. ... I'm here to help."
In accepting her award, Lamberjack said she was doing so in the name of "our rural brothers and sisters, the invisible people" who work out of the public eye in places such as nurseries, fields, greenhouses, laundries, water parks, restaurants, hotels and meat plants.