Ask Sarah Yore-Van Oosterhout about her job, and she doesn’t mention all the awards she has won for her work with immigrants; she doesn’t even start the conversation with all the people her nonprofit Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates
has helped in five years.
She is focused on the next hurdle.
Immigrant communities are underrepresented in COVID-19 relief, she says.
“People aren’t thinking about the fact that these folks, in particular, are going to be smashed by this pandemic,” says Yore-Van Oosterhout.
Yore-Van Oosterhout and LIA are working with area employers to make sure those who might not be able to speak for themselves have a voice.
She is working with a couple on their legal claim that they were dismissed from a West Michigan factory when they self-quarantined after becoming sick with COVID-19.
Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates is lcoated at 610 Butternut Drive in Holland Township.
Employers are putting up the legally required signs, but “a lot of the people you’re hiring can’t read, so what good is that sign if they can’t read it?” she says. “You need to be doing more to explain to people what’s happening.”
Migrant workers are disproportionately in a subset of poor, undereducated essential workers who don’t have the privilege or money to stay home from work, she says.
Those who are in the process of trying to renew their legal residency documents — something that has to be done every two years within a five-month window — are facing a state that is shut down. Paperwork is taking much longer, but deadlines are the same.
The Holland Township nonprofit, at 610 Butternut Drive, has been conducting all client meetings remotely to keep both staff and clients safe from the spread of COVID-19. However, that represents an additional hurdle: Helping a group that is often not tech-savvy to navigate new technology.
Many staff members have become flexible to fill in the cracks, Yore-Van Oosterhout says. An office manager morphed his role into a Census helper and services navigator as those roles became needed.
It is true that Yore-Van Oosterhout and LIA have received numerous awards, including the 2015 Holland Human Relations Commission Social Justice Award in the inaugural year, the 2018 Holland Young Professional of the Year Award and, most recently, a community partner award from Latin Americans United for Progress.
LAUP typically gives two annual partnership awards — one to an organization and one to an individual in the community who stands for advocacy. When Yore-Van Oosterhout stood at the podium during LAUP’s black-tie gala last fall, she accepted both the advocacy award for herself and the partnership award for Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates.
Related: Life of giving enriches everyone
“Even if this wasn’t her job, she would still be doing the same thing,” says Ed Amaya, LAUP’s interim executive director. “Sarah is about advocacy. She is all about making sure those who don’t have a voice are heard. And making sure those who do have voices don’t abuse it.”
And she has the backbone to step up, Amaya says.
She started the nonprofit in 2015 with a mission to “empower the holistic well-being and stability of the immigrant community in West Michigan.” That comes through low-cost or free legal representation, as well as community education.
A big part of LIA’s advocacy had become going into schools and educating all students about their neighbors, as well as helping the children of migrant workers attending classes. Without schools to go to, that all stopped.
A spring speaker series had to be canceled, as well.
“That’s loss of revenue, but also loss of educational opportunities,” Yore-Van Oosterhout says. “We’ve decided to cut back on our public face and really focus on our clients.”
The move is a critical one, she says, but it further erodes LIA’s fundraising opportunities.
A federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan gave the small nonprofit a little bit of breathing room, but it’s a Band-Aid, says Yore-Van Oosterhout, who didn’t set out with the goal of becoming a lawyer.
For Yore-Van Oosterhout, the law is a tool. Her undergraduate degree is in social work. As part of her degree program, she worked in a Grand Rapids maternity clinic. Many of her clients were immigrant women; many were suffering from domestic violence, human trafficking, and other atrocities.
“I’m living with these stories as a 22-year-old senior, recently married. I had no idea how to help these women,” she says. “I kept going to my superiors, saying there has to be something we can do for these ladies.”
What she received was “a bunch of shoulder shrugs.”
That’s when Yore-Van Oosterhout says she realized “social work is not enough to help people.”
“I didn’t have the tools necessary with that social work degree to do what I felt the community needed,” she says.
She was burned out before she began. She took a couple of years off and taught in Florida. Again, she found herself advocating for the migrant community, attempting to dispel misconceptions about English language learners in the public school system.
That’s when she realized this work was a calling and maybe a law degree would help her to accomplish that work. She graduated from the Michigan State Law School Immigration Clinic in 2013.
It was the directors of the program who would, two years later, offer the seed money to start Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates in Holland.
“For them to have that much faith in me is still one of those moments,” Yore-Van Oosterhout says.
Lines out the door
The nonprofit was busy from the get-go, she says.
“There’s just such an extreme need in this community for this type of service,” says Yore-Van Oosterhout, who speaks Spanish.
LIA is the first nonprofit of its type to offer low- or no-cost immigration legal counsel in Holland. In less than two years, the nonprofit went from 20 new cases a month when it opened to 20 new cases a week or more.
Changes to federal immigration law have been “fast and furious” under President Donald Trump’s administration, Yore-Van Oosterhout says, but with COVID-19, changes have been almost a daily occurrence.
“We had lines out the door,” Yore-Van Oosterhout says. “We had volunteers who were doing triage intake.”
This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs, and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.