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To fill gap left by LSS closure, North Dakota will offer affordable immigration legal services

The sudden closure of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota in January 2021 left people like Suheila Hamid in a lurch when it came to finding affordable legal services to help relatives immigrate to the U.S.

Suheila Hamid holding a picture of her mother on her cell phone on Friday, July 15, 2022.jpg
Suheila Hamid holds a picture of her mother on her cellphone on Friday, July 15, 2022. Hamid, who recently became a U.S. citizen, hopes to help her immigrate to North Dakota.
C.S. Hagen/The Forum
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FARGO — The things Suheila Hamid misses the most about growing up in a large family of eight brothers and sisters, center around her mother.

“She did everything she could to raise us. She put us through school and it was not normal for girls to go to school,” Hamid, 25, said.

Born and raised in Kenya, she comes close to tears when describing her memories of Friday night dinners, grand babies running around causing havoc and her father who died around the time she left home.

More than eight years ago, she came to America, and eventually settled in Fargo. On July 13, she became a U.S. citizen, and now her dream of bringing her mother here can begin to take shape.

The only problem is she doesn't know where to begin. For more than a year, the state of North Dakota and its partners have not offered affordable immigration law services to help residents bring family to the U.S., but those services are set to begin again next month.

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“It’s always nice to have your mom and to be able to ask your mom questions about how to get through life,” Hamid said. “You need someone to guide you. It’s just me by my lonesome here, having her to guide me, to rely on her, maybe I could be a child again.”

The sudden closure of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota (LSS) in January 2021 left people like Hamid in a lurch.

A year-and-a-half later, nearly all the former LSS programs have been handed to other agencies, or picked up by nonprofit organizations such as Luther Hall, a psychiatric residential treatment facility for 16 children, which was transferred over to Nexus Family Healing. LSS’s interpreting services went to Omni Group International. The agency’s adoption services were sent to the Village Family Service Center.

One of LSS’s programs never got picked up, however: immigration assistance, a costly and complicated legal process.

State refugee coordinator, Holly Triska-Dally, said she’s known about this gap, and by next month, a new state-coordinated program will be in place.

Partnerships with nonprofit organizations and law offices have been formed, and the effort will soon become a reality named Refugee Legal Services group, which comprises: Legal Services of North Dakota, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), Advocates for Human Rights, CAWS North Dakota, Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, the Global Friends Coalition, Swanson Law Office and other immigration law professionals.

“I really feel that by the end of the summer, the services will be more complete and affordable than under the old model. There will be no out-of-pocket costs for refugees,” Triska-Dally said.

Excluding immigration services, LIRS has already picked up most of the resettlement programs LSS dropped since its closure. LSS, a 102-year-old agency, filed for bankruptcy in October 2021 after its housing project in western North Dakota failed .

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LIRS is a faith-based nonprofit that focuses on resettling refugees. Supported by federal funds, LIRS formed a North Dakota operation shortly after LSS closed.

Dan Hannaher, a former LSS employee, is now executive director of LIRS. His team of 12 employees are almost all new Americans or refugees, coming from nine different countries and speaking a total of 21 languages.

Dan Hannaher, executive director of Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service North Dakota, in his office in June 2022.jpg
Dan Hannaher, executive director of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in North Dakota, in his office in June 2022.
C.S. Hagen/The Forum

“At LSS, we had immigration services. In fact, just before the closure we had an attorney leading that team and we had three others who were certified immigration specialists, so we were able to provide income, asylum statues and Green Card services," Hannaher said. "All of our certified specialists lost the certification upon the closure."

Saurav Dahal, a former program manager for LSS, said LSS used to “help hundreds of families every year with immigration paperwork.”

“LIRS has done a good job picking up these pieces. It (immigration services) is already expensive because you have to pay the fees. You have to have someone helping out with the process. It is a big, big challenge," Dahal said. "LSS was able to provide that affordability, and they got 50% off if they were on public assistance."

Sara Stolt, chief operating officer for North Dakota Department of Human Services, said there's no simple answer to why the state didn’t step in to rescue LSS before it folded.

“The department does not have the authority or appropriation to assume responsibility for private and nonprofit agency organizations. In addition, DHS became aware of LSSND’s difficulties at the same time as the public and responded as quickly as possible to sustain vital services,” Stolt said.

For Hannaher, his role at LIRS is a calling he discovered the day LSS closed.

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“I wasn’t going to give up on this. All of these good programs have reemerged. It took some time, but they’re back. The state did take on a number of programs, the child care work, the oversight of child care operations around the state,” Hannaher said.

On the eve of LSS’s closing, Hannaher said a refugee family of four arrived at Hector International Airport. Case managers continued to work with them, and when funds ran out, started a GoFundMe page that raised $15,000.

“Otherwise, they would have been in complete darkness,” Hannaher said.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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