Lawyer’s green card mistake leads to Jackson nonprofit leader, family being deported
JACKSON, MI – A Jackson nonprofit for at-risk youth that Neil Fernandes and his wife Veronica built over the past decade is in danger.
The couple and their family face deportation after the US Citizenship and Immigration Services denied the green card “at the 11th hour”. Fernandes attributes their impending emigration from the United States back to Canada to a mistake by his attorney, who later wrote a letter on Fernandes’ behalf admitting guilt over the lack of communication that led to the rejection of his permanent residency application.
After a lengthy trial that cost him tens of thousands of dollars, Fernande’s efforts to gain legal permanent residency were denied when a federal judge dismissed his appeal challenging the denial.
Fernandes calls the ruling a “tragedy” given the impact it could potentially have on Rise Above, the Jackson nonprofit he and his wife have run in Jackson since 2014.
“I never thought that I would be held accountable for the mistake made by my lawyer and that for 12 years I would not only have turned my life upside down, but also that of my children,” said Fernandes.
Fernandes was born in Windsor in 1974 and is a Canadian citizen. His faith led him to study the Bible and world religions at Spring Arbor University in 2011, where he graduated in 2014. Based on the relationships they formed in the Jackson community, he and Veronica formed Rise Above shortly thereafter, with Neil serving as the nonprofit’s pastor and executive director.
Rise Above provides educational support to students who have been suspended or expelled from their schools. In partnership with all Jackson County public school districts, Rise Above provides educational support, entrepreneurship guidance and faith-based programs to help teenagers restore relationships and regain academic credit.
While Fernandes worries about how his family’s upcoming deportation through February 27 will affect his sons – one who is about to graduate and another who was planning to wed in July – his biggest worry is Rise’s future Above when he is not there to run for it.
“All of these groups depend on my wife and I and our staff to provide a service to these teenagers who have nothing else,” Fernandes said. “You got expelled from school. You have no other option for academics, socialization, rehabilitation. It jeopardizes Rise Above and the work we’ve put into it over the last 10 years. That is really the tragedy.”
Fernandes and his family have widespread support from the Jackson community, including 23 letters filed in his lawsuit by senior Jackson officials, executives, superintendents, pastors and law enforcement officials.
These include state deputies Julie Alexander, R-Hanover; Brent Ellis, President of Spring Arbor University; Jackson Police and Fire Department Director Elmer Hitt; 12th Judicial District Court Administrator Geremy Burns, Consumers Energy Executive Director of Community Engagement Josh Burgett, and Jackson County Youth Center Director Chuck Baker.
Many of the letters emphasize that Fernandes and his family are valuable members of the community and that their departure would be a loss to the Jackson community.
“They touch countless lives, many that others in the community don’t want to interact with or are too scared to interact with,” wrote Steven Castle, CEO of Jackson Interfaith Shelter. “This would be an incalculable loss to the community and, more importantly, to the teens who end up in prison or worse, without the chance of a way out that Rise Above offers.”
Fernandes is being deported because USCIS determined that he was not eligible for permanent resident status because he had worked more than 180 days without a work permit.
Fernandes acknowledges this but attributes it to a change of lawyers when his previous attorney, Rahul Arora, who was handling his visa renewal process, moved into corporate law. During the handover to new attorney Philip Curtis in March 2021, Fernandes was not given some important information, including that he had to stop working after his current visa expired on August 23, 2021.
Curtis acknowledges that he was responsible for the lack of communication in a letter in support of Fernandes’ lawsuit, stating that Fernandes continued to work past the 180-day limit because he felt his pending application for lawful Permanent resident status allows him to continue this work.
Curtis said he had no communication with Arora about Fernandes’ visa status and that he had not made it clear to Fernandes that he could not work past the expiration date.
“Mr. Fernandes is a hard working and law-abiding individual, but he is not an immigration attorney,” Curtis wrote. “Due to a failure of adequate communication by his former and current attorney, Mr. Fernandes has been engaged in unauthorized employment for a period of time which he is not would have exercised if he understood his status correctly at the time. It was not his fault.”
USCIS informed Fernandes of its intention to deny his pending visa application on July 6, 2022, before fully denying his and his family’s green card applications on August 31, despite Fernandes’ defense “through no fault of his own.”
USCIS does not comment on individual immigration cases.
However, in a statement, a spokesman wrote: “USCIS arbitrators fairly, humanely and efficiently evaluate each application for immigration services on a case-by-case basis before making a decision, and the agency is committed to delivering on America’s promise as a nation of welcome and opportunity.” with fairness, integrity and respect for all we serve.”
Fernandes filed his lawsuit against USCIS Director Ur Mendoza Jaddou, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and USCIS Nebraska Service Center Director Loren K. Miller in October in the US District Court in Detroit to overturn the denial.
The lawsuit was dismissed. Judge Mark A. Goldsmith ruled that Fernandes’ case lacked “substantive jurisdiction” because the district court had no jurisdiction to review USCIS denials.
“This no longer gives anyone the opportunity to have their case heard by a federal judge,” Fernandes said of the ruling, which was based on a Supreme Court ruling that federal courts had no jurisdiction over any judgments related to denial of status adjustment.
As a result of the ruling, Fernandes has not been able to receive a paycheck for several months. He hopes he can keep the nonprofit afloat while working remotely, but worries about its long-term viability without being able to fundraise and work locally.
“We have phenomenal staff here doing a great job, but they’re not the fundraising wing of Rise Above,” Fernandes said. “I pretty much am. If I cannot maintain these relationships, there is currently no one within the organization who has the skills or the relationship base to continue the funding Rise Above needs to be successful.”
Concerned about the void left by the departure of Fernandes and his family, Jackson County Superintendents describe the impact they’ve had working with at-risk youth for nearly a decade.
“It really filled a void that really didn’t exist before,” Northwest Community Schools Superintendent Geoff Bontrager said of Rise Above. “They are really flexible and work to meet each student’s needs where they need to be met.”
State laws leave expelled students few opportunities to get back on track, said Sandy Maxson, superintendent of the da Vinci Institute. She recognizes the work of Fernandes and Rise Above in meeting their needs in these circumstances, including three former da Vinci students this year.
“They share a lot more than just education,” Maxson said. “You work very well with students who have had trauma in their lives and are going through difficult situations with families.”
A GoFundMe has been set up to help the Fernandes family with expenses during this time, with plans to support Rise Above if it hits its $25,000 goal. It has currently raised nearly $14,000.
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