DURHAM, N.C. – It took months for Maria*, a single mother and victim of domestic violence, to gather the courage to file charges against her abuser. Her English skills were limited, and she was afraid of retaliation by the defendant’s family.

During the hearing, the defendant’s lawyer called Maria into a closed door meeting. She had no legal representation and understood little of what the lawyer was saying to her. Immediately after the meeting, the defendant’s lawyer had the case dismissed, telling the judge that Maria had withdrawn her charges.

When Maria learned what had happened, she burst into tears.

The D.E.A.R. Foundation, a local nonprofit, sent a staff member to accompany Maria to the district attorney’s office. After hearing the details, the district attorney voided the dismissal. Maria’s abuser is now facing justice, and a formal complaint has been filed against his lawyer.

Maria is just one of many immigrants who have been helped by the D.E.A.R. Foundation, which stands for Development, Empowerment, Action and Relief. The foundation, which held its official launch event Tuesday, Dec. 10, in Durham, is dedicated to protecting immigrant rights and promoting social justice through legal empowerment programs and educational activities. It serves North Carolina’s Wake, Durham, Orange and Alamance counties.

Its founder and executive director, Johanna Kelley, graduated from Duke University’s Master of International Development Policy (MIDP) program last year. The foundation was a direct outgrowth of her master’s project, which focused on reducing immigrants’ rights violations through policy change.

“The immigrant community in the United States, and in North Carolina, is facing a difficult time. The broken immigration system, the obsolete laws and the constant policy failures are causing continued violations of immigrants’ rights,” Kelley said. “They are voiceless and they need support to be heard and to be respected.”

A broken system

The N.C. Justice Center reports that, in 2011, 7.3 percent of North Carolinians were immigrants, up from 5.3 percent in 2000. The state’s undocumented population – estimated at 325,000 – ranks No. 9 in the nation, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report.

At the same time, North Carolina has some of the most restrictive laws on immigration. In 2011, it adopted the e-Verify program, which requires employers to verify through an Internet-based system that their new hires are eligible to work in the United States.

The state also stopped issuing driver’s licenses to immigrants without Social Security numbers in 2006. In 2011, it became the 10th state to implement the Secure Communities program, which allows local law enforcement officers to get the fingerprints of detainees and run them through a database to confirm their immigration status. The program has come under fire for its lack of regulation and the high number of non-criminals that have been deported as a result.

“They say they are doing it to find criminals, but it’s really racial profiling,” Kelley said. “They call the innocent people ‘collateral damage.’ But collateral damage is usually the minority; here it’s the majority.”

Speaking out for immigrants

Discrimination against immigrants is an issue that Kelley understands all too well, having moved to the U.S. from her native Colombia eight years ago.

“As an immigrant, I have faced discrimination, unequal treatment, and isolation,” she said. “It has been extremely difficult to adapt to the U.S. because the society and the system remind me daily that as immigrants we do not belong here.”

Kelley earned her law degree in 2001 from Santo Tomas de Aquino University in Colombia, where she practiced labor and human rights law for six years. She later worked as executive director of the Retorno Foundation, a human rights organization which was founded to support victims of violence.

However, soon Kelley herself became the victim. Targeted by terrorist groups for her legal and humanitarian activities, she survived two kidnappings and attempted murder before fleeing with her family to the U.S. in September 2005.

“I had four suitcases where I tried to fit thirty years of my life,” Kelley said. “Although the terrorists took everything from me, including my choice to live in my country, they could not take one of my most precious treasures, my dreams.”

One of these dreams was to found a nonprofit to help immigrants protect themselves and stand up for their rights. The D.E.A.R. Foundation, which opened its doors in November, administers three programs that address the needs of the immigrant community. In addition to the Victim Assistance Program, which helps immigrants learn new customs and laws, it runs a program that provides legal support to refugees and another that aims to keep families together by helping immigrants avoid deportation.

The foundation has five employees and two offices – one in Raleigh and the other near downtown Burlington. It has obtained financial support from three local companies and will begin applying for grants next year. It also charges small fees for legal support to cover its administrative expenses.

“We are proud of our achievements in such a small time frame,” Kelley said. “D.E.A.R. has stopped deportations of non-criminal undocumented immigrants and has helped immigrant youths obtain temporary relief.”

Kelley became a U.S. citizen in 2010 and earned a second master’s degree from Duke Law School in May of this year. She is currently studying to take the bar exam so she can practice law in the U.S.

“As an immigrant with legal status and opportunities in the U.S., I feel that I have a duty and the motivation to support the immigrant community,” Kelley said. “There is hope if we all work hard and are united.”

Name has been changed.

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