By Jim Jones

A group of Boise attorneys is forming a program to provide free legal help to low-income refugees. Volunteer lawyers will supplement on-going efforts of local law-related organizations to serve the legal needs of the Treasure Valley refugee community. The pro bono lawyers will work closely with the Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program, Idaho Legal Aid, Intermountain Fair Housing and Concordia Law School to provide hands-on legal services to refugees who meet established income guidelines.

The program will not diminish legal help for non-refugees. Rather, additional lawyers are being recruited to assist refugees with their legal problems.

Additionally, the program will address issues unique to the refugee community. Volunteers will conduct informational presentations for refugees on our legal system and how to acclimate to it. The program is called The New Beginning Law Academy, recognizing that the Treasure Valley community welcomes refugees and is offering legal assistance as part of their American beginning. Subjects will include family law, employment issues, consumer rights, immigration issues, and the workings of the criminal justice system. Many refugees come from countries where people avoid the police out of fear of their safety. The Boise Police Department has a good working relationship with the refugee community and the program’s lawyers will assist from the legal standpoint.

The pro bono program will work closely with Jannus, Inc., which operates the Idaho Office for Refugees and a variety of other programs providing social services to the refugee community. Lawyer volunteers will provide a legal component to the outstanding work presently being performed by Jannus.

One other goal of the program is to openly discuss refugee issues and the need support refugee settlement in the community. Idaho has a moral responsibility to welcome refugees into our good-hearted community.  

Refugees in Idaho are settled primarily in Boise and Twin Falls. The five-year refugee population in Idaho from FY 2012 to FY 2016 was 4,350, with 3,080 in Boise and 1,270 in Twin Falls. In FY 2016, 1,121 refugees arrived in the State. Of those, 56% came from African countries, 32% were from Near Eastern and South Asian countries (including Bhutan, Iran, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq), and the remainder came from Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

While the refugees in the community are from many different countries, those coming from Middle Eastern countries have been the subject of discussion in recent months. Concerns being raised about those folks are completely unfounded. If people would take the time to get to know our refugee community, it would become clear that they just want what we all do—to live and raise their families in a safe environment.

There is another reason the U.S. must provide safe harbor for refugees from the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq set off a chain of events that produced the greatest refugee crisis in recent history. Since the United States was a large contributor to the refugee crisis in the Middle East, our country can’t simply turn its back on these unfortunate people. We have an ethical obligation to provide safe harbor for some of the people we helped to misplace. Many of these refugees have been subjected to unspeakable horrors and we should step forward to give them refuge.

The chance of a refugee being a disguised terrorist is virtually nonexistent. If a terrorist wanted to get into this country, he could do it quicker and with much less vetting by getting a tourist or student visa, like the 911 hijackers did.  Sitting around a hot and dusty refugee camp in the Middle East for years and hoping to be referred to the U.S. refugee program for additional screening for another couple of years would not make much sense. The U.S. subjects refugees from all countries to very careful screening, which has effectively eliminated any threat to our communities.

The pro bono group is getting organized in the Treasure Valley and will continue to recruit more attorney volunteers for that area.  Organizers have been in contact with attorneys in the Magic Valley and plan to set up a similar program in Twin Falls soon.