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Legal Needs Spotlight: Improving Legal Services for Immigrant Populations

Each day North Carolinians searching for a solution to their legal problems are forced to navigate the system alone, facing cases in court, administrative bureaucracy, and complex problems without the assistance of a lawyer. In 2021, the NC Equal Access to Justice Commission and NC Equal Justice Alliance released the 2020 Legal Needs Assessment, the first comprehensive assessment of civil legal needs in North Carolina in more than two decades. Completed with funding support from NC IOLTA, the executive summary and report documented with greater clarity the most significant legal needs and the biggest barriers facing individuals seeking legal help. The executive summary is available at nclegalneeds. org.

In 2022, NC IOLTA convened the legal aid community to discuss specific strategies to respond to the greatest areas of identified need. An in-person convening in March led to the formation of four working groups, comprised of subject matter experts from NC IOLTA grantees and stakeholders, to provide recommendations for improving the availability of and access to legal services in four areas: (1) family law; (2) legal services for immigrant populations; (3) outreach and communications; and (4) coordinated intake. The working groups released their recommendations in September 2022. The full set of recommendations can be found on NC IOLTA’s website at

As NC IOLTA works this year to respond to the needs identified in the report and the community’s recommendations about how to improve the availability of and access to legal services, we plan to highlight each identified area of need and the work being done across the state to provide solutions. We hope you will take this opportunity to learn more about pressing challenges facing our communities and join in meeting our shared professional obligation to improve the justice system and ensure the availability of legal services for all.

Legal Services for Immigrant Populations

Legal services for immigration and naturalization were the second-most cited underserved practice area in the Legal Needs Assessment, in addition to other areas of civil legal need for immigrant populations such as consumer issues, landlord/tenant issues, and workers’ rights. The barriers impacting expanded access include restrictions on funding, changing federal laws, delays in processing, and language and literacy challenges. The Legal Services for Immigrant Populations Working Group recommended the following:

(1) Developing a formal space for coordination among legal services providers serving this population to support better coordination, referral, and community strategy;

(2) Expanding legal resources for immigrant populations including pro se resources, limited services, and pro bono opportunities;

(3) Analyzing legal needs of the population further; and

(4) Supporting staff recruitment and retention.

Legal aid providers offer legal services to immigrant populations, for example, assisting victims of crime to obtain legal status for which they are eligible because they helped in the prosecution of a crime or securing orders of protection to keep families and children safe from abuse, in addition to a host of other general civil legal needs. In the past year, organizations responded to emerging needs in innovative ways, including through the following two new programs:

Legal Services for Afghan Refugees

Following the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, over 80,000 Afghan refugees have arrived in the United States. Certain Afghan partners who were employed by the US government qualified for a Special Immigrant Visa. However, most refugees received two-year Temporary Protected Status that expires in 2023. The US Congress discussed but did not pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would have extended a pathway to lawful permanent residency. Therefore, Afghan parolees must apply for asylum before their temporary protected status expires.

Legal aid providers in North Carolina have stepped up to assist qualified refugees in navigating the legal process. The Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy initiated an Afghan Asylum Project that represented 35 refugees in the first half of 2022. Similarly, Pisgah Legal Services (Western NC) launched a pro bono program to assist 38 refugees seeking asylum status. World Relief Durham welcomed approximately 100 Afghan refugees and hosted an information session to help the families better understand the immigration legal system. International House of Metrolina (Charlotte) also began serving Afghan refugees in 2022 through their Immigration Law Clinic.

Statewide Removal Defense Network

The Charlotte Immigration Court (CIC), which covers all of North Carolina and South Carolina, has the lowest proportion of respondents who are represented by an attorney of any immigration court in the United States. 23.5% were represented compared to a national average of 60.2%. Additionally, only 15% of asylum applications filed in the CIC were granted, compared to the nationwide asylum grant rate of 47.7%. Lawyers who practice in the CIC observe anecdotally that they have never seen even one unrepresented respondent receive asylum.

In response, the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy (i.e., the Advocacy Center) has developed a statewide network to provide free eligibility screenings for immigrants who are in removal proceedings. The Statewide Removal Defense Network launched in May 2022. Participating organizations include the North Carolina Justice Center as well as law school immigration clinics at Duke, UNC, and Campbell.

Staff at the Advocacy Center help desk room located at the Charlotte Immigration Court now offer free eligibility screenings to help determine the types of immigration relief for which someone may be eligible. Once the screening is completed, staff determine if representation is warranted and, if so, attempt to find pro bono or low-cost representation for eligible individuals.

One Advocacy Center client, “James,” was trafficked to the United States by his stepfather at the age of 14. After arrival, the stepfather would not allow James to enroll in school and forced him to work in construction six days a week and took his wages. After a few months, the stepfather abandoned James, who was able to move in with an uncle in Charlotte. This uncle also forced him to work in construction. Eventually, after falling off a roof and hurting his back while working at a construction site, James went to the Advocacy Center office and sought help to apply for a T-Visa (for victims of human trafficking). James is now eligible to go to school and lives with a cousin.

The Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy is also partnering with American Immigration Lawyers Association-Carolinas and the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition to host a CLE on how to advise immigrant respondents on how to represent themselves in immigration court. 

Additional Updates

IOLTA Revenue. Monthly revenue from participant income in 2022 was slightly depressed in the first six months of the year, but rose significantly in the second half of 2022 due to increases in the Federal Funds Target Rate (FFTR) and positive adjustments being made by many financial institutions in their interest rates paid on IOLTA accounts. Income from IOLTA accounts from January through December 2022 exceeded $7.5 million.

2023 Grantmaking. 2023 IOLTA awards were approved by the trustees at the December Board Meeting. IOLTA awarded 33 grants totaling $6.1 million in 2023. For a list of all 2023 grants, visit pdf.

State Funds. NC IOLTA administers state funding on behalf of the NC State Bar. Under the Domestic Violence Victim Assistance Act, a portion of fees assessed in civil and criminal court actions support legal assistance for domestic violence victims provided by Legal Aid of North Carolina and Pisgah Legal Services. In the first half of the 2022-23 state year, NC IOLTA has administered $421,688 in domestic violence state funds. An additional $100,000 in state funding in 2022-23 was directed to Pisgah Legal Services in the state budget for their veteran’s legal services program. A report on funding administered under the Domestic Violence Victim Assistance Act can be found at

Don’t forget to certify! Each year, as part of the annual dues process, all members of the North Carolina State Bar are required to make a certification regarding your IOLTA status. This simple question asks you to confirm if you do or do not hold funds on behalf of North Carolina clients. Whether you complete the dues process online through the State Bar’s Member Portal or print a form and mail it in, don’t forget to complete this step. As a reminder, separate from the mandatory annual certification, all attorneys should inform NC IOLTA any time your IOLTA status changes, that is, if you change employment or open or close a trust account.