Catholic church closes its Hispanic legal assistance office

July 8, 2008 

The Hispanic Office of Legal Assistance on Hilton Head Island provided low-cost legal help for nearly 10 years to immigrants who would have had trouble navigating the complicated and expensive process on their own.

The office, part of St. Francis By the Sea Catholic Church, grew into one of the largest immigrant services organization in the region, sometimes handling up to 500 cases a year for people as far away as Statesboro, Ga.

But two weeks ago, the church told the couple who operate the office to vacate.

The move stunned the office's staff and could mean files for hundreds of their clients will be shifted to Charleston or elsewhere.

The church won't say specifically why it closed the office, only that it was a confidential personnel issue. The decision had nothing to do with funding and was not a response to negative public sentiment about immigration issues, the church's priest, the Rev. Michael Oenbrink, said. The church still will help immigrants any way it can and is working to make sure the office's caseload will be taken care of by local immigration attorneys or other church services in Charleston, Oenbrink said.

"We have not had any change in our commitment to immigration," Oenbrink said. "It's not a matter of a mission change, philosophy change."

The couple who ran the office, Paul and Carol Groeschel, have hired a lawyer to seek "any and all remedies" for the firing, said Gary Coggin, their attorney. Paul Groeschel said he couldn't discuss the reasons for the firing because of the possibility of a lawsuit. He did say he believes it was a personnel issue, as well as a financial and policy issue.

The office was founded in 1999 to help people who have a right to citizenship -- through marriage, special protected status or other reasons -- work through the voluminous government paperwork. At the time, some people providing immigration services on the island were unlicensed or charging exorbitant fees, Groeschel said. The church asked the couple to help out with immigration services, and the office was born.

Over the past year, the office had been trying to consolidate its operation with Catholic Charities in Charleston instead of through the church, but still planned to maintain an office and its staff on Hilton Head.

Catholic Charities accepted the arrangement, then rescinded the offer last week without explanation, Groeschel said. The next day, the church told the Groeschels that Catholic Charities would assume their operation and the couple would no longer be involved, Paul Groeschel said.

The office has helped people like Brian Stanton, who married a Costa Rican national last summer and has been working with the Groeschels to get her U.S. citizenship. Hiring an immigration attorney would have cost about four times more, Stanton said. Now that the office is closed, he's worried some clients will be forced to get help from the church's archdiocese in Charleston, a hardship for those who don't have cars.

"For me, it's more of an inconvenience," Stanton said. "With a lot of other people, I could just imagine someone who was in the middle of their immigration process. ... I could see a lot of this getting lost."

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