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Lawyer Stephen Coger said neighbors in his hometown of Danville inspired him to found the nonprofit organization Arkansas Immigrant Defense in 2015. “My heart had been activated by immigrant and refugee neighbors, one of whom became one of my extra mothers,” Coger said.
He had been working for Legal Aid of Arkansas, but “certain strings attached to their funding prevent them from serving the vast majority of immigrants and refugees in the state,” Coger said. “So I started AID to meet that legal need that was there for low-income people who are immigrants or refugees in need of legal services of different sorts.”
Most of the needs are immigration-related, with the primary focus on serving immigrant and refugee children who have been resettled to Arkansas by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. These are children who have survived human trafficking, abuse, abandonment or neglect.
In addition, a recent grant has allowed AID to take on eviction defense legal work, a need exacerbated by the pandemic.
AID provides its services for free to minors, to survivors of violent crime regardless of age and to those seeking eviction defense services. Other clients pay fees on an income-based sliding scale. The nonprofit serves about 15,000 clients annually.
AID has faced — and overcome — three main challenges in the last few years. First, demand for its services was so great that the nonprofit had to move from a small space provided for free to larger quarters charging rent. But it’s subleasing some of that new space, allowing AID not only to make its rent but also to save money through an Arkansas Community Foundation endowment, money that it plans to use to eventually buy its building.
The other two challenges were provoked by COVID-19. Revenue from clients fell sharply in the spring, and clients unable to work needed food. A series of Facebook Live events called “Fireside Chats With the Lawyer” helped boost client revenue, and with support from the Walton family, Tyson Foods, the Northwest Arkansas Council and others, AID is helping address food security issues in the area’s immigrant and refugee community.