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Jewish donors express faith in Catholic Charities’ immigrant services

Mariam Liberles, an immigration lawyer and supervising attorney at Catholic Charities’ Immigration Legal Services, met with a client at her office.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Mariam Liberles, an immigration lawyer and supervising attorney at Catholic Charities’ Immigration Legal Services, met with a client at her office.

The Trump administration had just issued its first executive orders cracking down on immigration. Barry Shrage, the head of Boston’s largest Jewish charitable organization, wondered how his community could help panicked immigrants obtain legal assistance.

He asked Jewish social service agencies where they sent immigrant clients who needed a lawyer. Very often, it turned out, they referred people to Catholic Charities and its small team of immigration attorneys in South Boston.

Now, Shrage’s group, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, is kicking off a major fund-raising effort to benefit Catholic Charities’ immigration law clinic, an unusual display of interfaith cooperation that leaders of both groups said reflects their communities’ shared history of living the immigrant experience and a common biblical obligation to help “the stranger.”

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The campaign has already drawn about $250,000 in commitments from large donors in advance of its formal announcement scheduled for Friday.

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“The Jewish people have been refugees from peril on a frequent basis,” Shrage said, “but have also sought to find betterment in the countries of our dispersion. In every case, what would have been better is to know people were there to help care for them.”

He said the money means more immigrants will have “someone to turn to, to ask questions of, to find out what rights you have, to understand better what your fate might be.”

Deborah Kincade Rambo, president of Catholic Charities of Boston, has known Shrage for years and worked with him on other charitable efforts. She said she does not know of another effort by a Jewish federation to help a Catholic Charities immigration law office.

“We were astounded,” she said. “To be able to have a champion was just amazing.”

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The Immigration Legal Services office, which shares a building with other Catholic Charities services at the Laboure Center on West Broadway, employs seven people — three full-time and two part-time attorneys, and two Department of Justice-accredited representatives who can handle some aspects of immigration cases.

Catholic Charities normally raises $400,000 to $500,000 a year to help cover the cost of the office. Rambo said she is hopeful the agency might be able to hire more lawyers with the money from the fund-raiser.

“Not to have people have to call back over and over again before they can get an appointment would be really exciting,” she said.

The clinic’s full-time attorneys handle about 100 cases each at any given moment. They offer a broad range of legal services, mainly focusing on family reunification and adjustment of status to allow people to be lawful permanent residents, Rambo said, as well as some humanitarian cases.

When the phone lines open at 9 a.m. Mondays, a week’s worth of requests for legal consultations fly in in five to 10 minutes, staffers said. A consultation costs just $50, a fraction of what private attorneys would normally charge.

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“People just want to know what options are available to them,” said Marjean Perhot, director of refugee and immigration services for Catholic Charities. “That’s in very high demand right now.”

So many calls poured in after the first executive orders were released, said Mariam Liberles, a supervising attorney. “It felt like the phone was going to combust.”

“It was heartbreaking,” she said. They simply couldn’t get to everyone.

The pace hasn’t gotten much slower since. Some people’s fears are greater than their legal troubles, but those take time to sift through. And many clients have a friend, a sister, a child who needs help.

“It just never stops,” said Liberles, whose own family emigrated from Armenia when she was 9 years old.

One recent day, she encountered a client who had been afraid to leave the house.

“It takes an emotional toll,” she said of her work.

Immigration cases tend to be complicated and high-stakes. Losing a case can have catastrophic consequences for families, ending in permanent separation across borders. Since the Trump administration has begun enforcing existing immigration laws more vigorously than the Obama White House, questions have poured in.

“Should I be driving?” said Amy Bloomstone, another attorney, describing the kinds of queries she has been hearing. “What if a police officer stops me? What if they knock on my door? Should I go to the airport? Should I go to the train station?”

Bloomstone, who is Jewish, said of the interfaith collaboration: “It really makes a statement.”

Among the first group of donors was Adam Suttin, a cofounder of the Boston private equity firm J.W. Childs Associates and a congregant at Temple Emanuel in Newton. He said he usually focuses his faith-based giving on Jewish charities because they depend on Jewish benefactors. But he saw this campaign as an important endeavor and a wise one, in that Jewish organizations could give to what is already an effective program rather than duplicate efforts.

Suttin’s grandparents emigrated from Russia and Eastern Europe. He sees aiding today’s newcomers as a matter of “basic human rights, civil rights, and Jewish values.”

“We were once strangers in this land,” he said. “We have to remember that and provide opportunities for others to enjoy the benefits of this country.”

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lisa.wangsness@globe.com.