Biden-Harris img post for May Newsletter

New Administration Renews Optimism for Immigrant Legal Services

As a Nigerian immigrant, Babatunde Tinubu personally felt the cruelty of President’s Trump’s immigration policies. In 2020, Nigeria was added to a list of restricted travel countries with Muslim majorities for no legitimate reason.

Over the first four months of the Biden-Harris administration, Tinubu has seen a sea change in the U.S. approach to immigration, renewing hope for him and many GMHC clients that the United States will restore its values of tolerance, compassion, and equality.

As senior supervising attorney on GMHC’s legal services immigration team, Tinubu helps clients, many living with HIV/AIDS, deal with a range of immigration matters. The typical client is from Latin America, but the department provides services to immigrants from all over the world.

“The U.S. has an estimated 11 million undocumented (but I don’t like to use that word) immigrants and most have been here a long time with nowhere else to go,” said Tinubu. “The immigrant client base is a significant portion of GMHC’s overall client base and even green card holders need assistance becoming U.S. citizens and getting family members into America.”

GMHC is among a handful of community-based organizations in New York City that provide free legal services to immigrants who are living with HIV/AIDS. Many immigrants are referred to GMHC by other agencies or learn about legal services through word-of-mouth or community outreach efforts. In 2020, GMHC’s legal immigration unit helped 548 clients, an increase of 15 percent over the 2019 level.

Gabriella* is among the clients whom immigrant legal services helped last year. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, she recently worked with Tinubu to apply for U.S. citizenship. A decade ago, he helped Gabriella get her green card. “GMHC kept me well informed every step of the way in the process to apply for my green card and citizenship,” she recalled. “I was treated with respect. I felt human again. There was no judgment.” Tinubu is now helping Gabriella’s mother apply for residency.

Tinubu has deep family roots in GMHC’s legal services department. His wife, Norma, previously held a role in the department. At the time, he was working as an immigrant attorney in private practice, but providing technical assistance to GMHC. When Norma left for another job, GMHC legal staff who were familiar with Babatunde’s work recommended him to take over his wife’s position. “I decided that I would try the job temporarily,” he recalled. “That was 14 years ago this month.”

Immigration policies have changed substantially over Tinubu’s 14 years at GMHC. He said the United States still struggles with coherent and thoughtful policies on immigration. Under the Trump administration, more than 400 executive actions on U.S. immigration were issued spanning matters from border enforcement to refugee resettlement to asylum.

“Under Trump, every time a new policy was announced, we had to respond with information on what to do and not to do and how that policy would impact our immigrant clients,” said Tinubu. “Some GMHC clients depend on medication to survive and public assistance to pay for their meds. We had to explain that they were still entitled to government assistance despite the threats posed by Trump’s immigration policies. We advised them to not get off public assistance, your health and life are more important.”

The Biden-Harris administration has reversed many of Trump’s xenophobic Executive Orders on immigration. “There is some euphoria as the burden of fear has been lifted off so many shoulders,” said Tinubu. “The American system worked. The laws and courts were largely able to stop the Trump administration. But the damage is still there, the discrimination is still there. It will take a while for the system to adjust.”

Despite the change in tone and approach with the Biden-Harris administration, GMHC continues to experience high demand for immigrant services, particularly by people who are living with HIV/AIDS and/or LGBTQ+ people who often have nowhere else to turn. “They already have enough to worry about,” Tinubu said. “We will be there to help them with their immigration issues and hope that things will get better for all immigrants here in the U.S.”

For more information about GMHC’s Immigration Legal Services, visit https://www.gmhc.org/services/legal/ or call 212-367-1308.

*Gabriella is pseudonym to protect the client’s identity.

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