By Lurdes C. da Silva

Immigrants' Assistance Center Executive Director Helena da Silva Hughes. (File photo)

Immigrants’ Assistance Center Executive Director Helena da Silva Hughes. (File photo)

NEW BEDFORD — In its 40-plus years of existence, the Immigrants’ Assistance Center has collected many recognitions, but few, if any, are as important as the one it just received from the Depart-ment of Homeland Security.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services recently recommended that the Board of Immigration Appeals approve the recognition of the center as a non-profit organization that provides “consistent service and sound guidance to the immigrant community.”

“This is a big deal,” said Helena da Silva Hughes, the center’s executive director. “It puts the Immigrants’ Assistance Center at another level and in a position that is important for our mission and the work we do on behalf of the community.”

In order to be considered for this recognition, both Hughes and the center had to go through intense scrutiny, she said.

“The process started in October and we finally submitted the application in March,” she explained. “There was very extensive training that we needed to attend and we also had to demonstrate our track record as trusted members of the community.”

Hughes was required to attend a five-day training in Boston, where she learned about asylum and refugee cases and all sorts of information pertaining to citizenship matters. She also had to provide recommendation letters on the center’s and her behalf, including those from Cong. William Keating, Mayor Jon Mitchell, Immigration Attorney Frederick Q. Watt and Eva Millona, executive director for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA).

“The immigrant community can become victims of scams and they [USCIS] want to protect the immigrants,” said Hughes.

After reviewing the evidence submitted by the center, USCIS determined that the organization “possesses sufficient knowledge, information, and experience in immigration law to provide adequate services to USCIS applicants,” according to a letter received by Hughes notifying her about the recognition.

The IAC receives about 500 citizenship inquiries per year, according to Hughes. Of those, about 300 people apply for naturalization. Some are not eligible, and others are deterred by the high naturalization fee.

“We are the only organization of this type in this area that has received this recommendation,” said Hughes. “As far as I know, only the immigration services at the Catholic Social Services has received it.”

Although the way the center provides citizenship and immigration services will remain the same, Hughes said that the new recommendation will help the center apply for additional funding from the USCIS.

“We are not doing anything different, but puts us at a different level,” concluded Hughes.

This article originally appeared in OJornal on May 30th, 2014, see it here