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Friday, April 25, 2014

Bar on free legal aid for Micronesians in US is lifted

Here’s good news for Micronesians residing in the U.S. mainland. A decade-long restriction on free civil legal services to indigent Micronesians has finally been lifted.

Micronesian Legal Service Corp. staff attorney Omar Calimbas told Saipan Tribune yesterday that the lifting of the restriction on Sept. 14, 2007, means that Micronesians cannot be denied free legal aid in the U.S. mainland for merely being Micronesians.

“This is really having a major direct impact in the States. I would argue that it’s a good thing for Micronesians anywhere because a lot of them are in the States to support families in Palau or FSM or Marshall Islands,” Calimbas said.

He said this would also indirectly help their families in the CNMI.

“For a decade now, we weren’t given any special treatment in the U.S. We’re just treated as aliens. There’s a bar on providing legal aid, too,” he said.

Calimbas explained that MLSC’s service area is only the Western Pacific.

“Our offices are only in the West Pacific countries and in the CNMI. We don’t represent anyone in the mainland,” he pointed out.

Calimbas said the Legal Services Corp., a quasi-federal agency serving as the main source of funding for nonprofit legal aid organizations, amended its regulations on alien representation for citizens from the Freely Associated States of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Before the change, he said, FAS citizens could only be eligible for legal aid in the West Pacific (through MLSC).

In the United States, however, Calimbas noted, FAS citizens were deemed ineligible aliens unless they fall under one of the general exempt categories of documented aliens.

“This barrier to legal aid cannot be simply written off as the fallout of the relationship between the U.S. and the former Trust Territories,” he said.

In the 1960s, legal aid programs began flourishing in the U.S. through funding by the Office of Economic Opportunity, the agency administering the social agenda of then President Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Calimbas said MLS began in 1971 through the efforts of individuals such as former CNMI Sen. Herman R. Guerrero and Marshall Islands Sen. Tony de Brum, with the assistance of the OEO.

In 1983 the U.S. Congress barred representation of aliens as a condition for LSC funding.

MLSC has about 13 to 15 staff attorneys throughout the West Pacific. In the CNMI, there are three: Calimbas, directing attorney Jane Mack and staff attorney Edward Peterson.

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