Michele Hangley is a lawyer and a litigation shareholder at the law firm Hangley Aronchick. She is also a board member at the Nationalities Service Center, a local organization which provides various services to immigrants and refugees in the region. In addition to the services offered, it also looks to empower immigrants and refugee, giving them dignity, stability, a connection to and safety within their communities.
What is the Nationalities Service Center and how are you involved?
The Nationalities Service Center is an almost 100-year old organization that was founded at the turn of the century to help immigrants, who at that time coming were from Europe with resettling into the United States. It has maintained that goal through the years. The organization became involved in the U.S. Refugee Program when that was created in the 1970s to help the Vietnamese boat people. NSC does a few things, but it is best known for its refugee services.
Philadelphia has been getting a lot of people from Burma and Bhutan, and more recently from Iraq. Philadelphia tends to get a lot of refugees who have serious medical needs, because we have such good medical programs. Our medical schools are familiar with dealing with refugees, in particular with things like malnourishment, childhood diseases and war injuries.
What the NSC staff does for refugees is find refugees housing, find them jobs, pick them up at the airport. They make sure that there’s a home-cooked meal from their culture ready for them when they get back, buy them groceries, furnish the apartments. There are social workers from NSC who spend hours a week with the new families trying to teach them how to be Americans.
It’s very challenging for these families because they have to start paying their way almost immediately. They have to get jobs within two weeks of arrival. And you can imagine what it’s like coming in: total culture shock, language shock, some of them come from places where they don’t learn to write, they don’t know how to read and they’re trying to find jobs in this economy. They also take the children and get them into schools.
At the Nationalities Service Center, I am a member of the board. We have a board that ranges from 15 to 21 people at different times. I have been the first vice chair of the organization, I have been the chair of the development committee and now I’m a regular board member. My main roles are helping raise money and helping to find new board members.
As a board member, what is your role in the operations of the Center?
The board of a nonprofit has two jobs. One is supervising. In the end, if something goes wrong at the organization, we’re the ones who are ultimately responsible for that. The main way we perform that function is by making sure that we have a really good executive director who is doing all the right things. It’s a supervisory role, but if everything’s going well, which it is, then you don’t have to go in and start any trouble. The other part is keeping the organization financially healthy. The annual budget of NSC is mostly government funded. When refugees come, NSC gets a certain amount of funding to then turn around and spend on refugees. It’s government funding, it’s grants and personal donations.
What does the demographic of people the Center serves look like? Is it usually adults? Are there ever teenagers or children, entire families?
The refugees that come through this program are almost always families. Either that or there’s a handful of people that come who helped U.S. forces in the Middle East. They’re brought in through their army buddies or the people who they translated for. There are not as many refugees as there used to be because of the Trump organization. There are a lot of other populations that NSC serves. People who used to be refugees who have now been here a little while and still need services. Anybody who needs legal services. NSC has a legal clinic, they’re currently helping DACA applicants.
They way that we use the terms at NSC, and I think all over the U.S., is that there is a legal definition. Refugees are people who have permission to come in and the State Department brings them over. People who come over the border illegally, they might also be fleeing persecution but they’re not sponsored refugees. That’s how it works in this country. You see in places like Europe, the tens of thousands of people coming over the border. They are refugees but it’s different from what we have over here. This is just because we have smaller borders and not as many people coming in.
NSC serves the refugees who are kind of officially sanctioned, but NSC also serves all kinds of immigrants. Documented, undocumented, documented and trying to change their status. They also serve victims of human trafficking, that’s a big part of their program. They do training on how to spot human trafficking and they help people get out of that system. I met a young woman at my church who had been tricked into coming here. She thought she was going to school and was then put into a trafficking situation. Her family found someone to go and rescue her and she wound up at NSC. They gave her a bus pass and clothes, she didn’t have anything. They’re helping her figure out what to do and survive. There are a lot of terrible situations that people find themselves in and NSC helps with a lot of these things.
What are some of the greater challenges that currently face the immigrant community in Philadelphia that the Center works to alleviate?
First of all, there’s the legal situation. There are a lot of people who are undocumented, and there are even more people who live in mixed families where the kids and one spouse may be citizens but somebody else doesn’t have status. You have a lot of people living in fear including people who are themselves documented. The unwritten rule for many years has been that you don’t mess with schools.
During the Obama administration, ICE was very active. There were lots of raids and a lot of people were deported. They did at least say that they were going to stay away from churches, schools and hospitals. Obama did a lot of raids but they really did focus on people with criminal records.
Now, I think the focus is more on low-hanging fruit and whoever they can manage to pick up. So I think people are more nervous. I think Philadelphia’s ICE is the most active in the country. One big issue, that is an issue across the country, is ICE agents coming to court to pick people up. If someone has either a minor criminal case or if they’re a victim even, if someone’s coming to testify especially in domestic issues, ICE will sometimes come and just pick people up who happen to be there. Wrong place, wrong time.
As a lawyer and as a citizen, I find it very disturbing that anything people do to make society function, ICE is messing with that. Victims should be able to go to court and testify. Everyone should be able to take advantage of systems, the schools, courts. They are there for everyone.
-Text and image by Dylan Long.