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Marcelo Betti: From Immigrant to Immigration Lawyer

Marcelo Betti immigration lawyer immigration attorney JFON-MI Justice For Our Neighbors Traverse City Michigan The Betsie Current

Questions & Answers with community faces

There is a lot of rhetoric right now, on both sides of the political spectrum, about immigration policy in the United States. But how much does the average person who lives in Benzie County really know about what is real and what is #fakenews? In an effort to better inform our readers, The Betsie Current decided to ask an expert—having been born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, but college-educated in Michigan and Vermont, 34-year-old Marcelo Betti is both an immigrant and an immigration attorney.

Betti grew up in Sao Paulo, one of the biggest cities in the world. He first came to rural Northern Michigan at the age of 16 as an exchange student at Traverse City Central High School for a full year. After going back to finish school in Brazil, Betti returned to Traverse City to attend Northwestern Michigan College, followed by Grand Valley State University through NMC’s University Center, graduating in 2008 with a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies.

Meanwhile, in 2007, Betti met Norika Kida, a native of Benzie County, who graduated in 2007 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Human Development and Social Relations from Kalamazoo College. After undergrad, the couple moved to Benzie County, where they worked as AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers at the Michigan State University Extension office in Beulah; they participated in the creation and early development of Grow Benzie, helping to bring together community resources to get that nonprofit organization off the ground. Additionally, they organized after-school programs for at-risk youth at Betsie Valley, Crystal Lake, and Platte River elementary schools.

In 2010, Betti and Kida enrolled at Vermont Law School, and they married in 2012. The couple came back to Northern Michigan after graduating from law school in 2013 and have been here ever since—they bought a house in Traverse City in 2014, and they now have a two-year-old son, Lorenzo.

From 2013 to 2017, Betti worked at Rosi & Gardner, P.C., a Traverse City law firm, where he practiced primarily family law and immigration law. In 2015, he also began working part-time at Justice For Our Neighbors – Michigan (JFON-MI), a nonprofit organization that offers free, high-quality immigration legal services to low-income individuals; he left Rosi & Gardner when his JFON position became full-time in the summer of 2018.

Continuing with our interview series on impactful local characters, The Betsie Current caught up with Betti between legal research projects.

The Betsie Current: Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and how you landed in Northern Michigan? What drew you to this area? Did you always know that you wanted to be a lawyer?

Marcelo Betti: I initially landed in Northern Michigan by pure coincidence—I signed up to be an exchange student in the United States, but I had no choice over where I would end up. I was lucky to be assigned to Traverse City, a place that I had never heard of but which quickly became “home.” I grew up in a big city, where everyone lived in fenced-in apartment buildings; there was no sense of community. Arriving in Northern Michigan, I was shocked by how warm and friendly most people were. After a few months living here, I realized that this is where I wanted to live, rather than going back to the “concrete jungle” of Sao Paulo. As for my career choice, I was not one of those people who knew from an early age what I wanted to be; it wasn’t until college when I set my sights on law school. For better or worse, I am one of those people who got a law degree “to help people.” I also wanted a career that would allow me to come back and settle in Northern Michigan, and being an attorney seemed like a viable option.

Current: What has you most excited about practicing law in Northern Michigan?

Betti: Since I started practicing law five years ago, my favorite practice area has been immigration law. I am fortunate and glad to now be working full-time as an immigration attorney for JFON-MI, a nonprofit that offers free legal services and is a safe haven for all immigrants, regardless of race or religion. We have four offices throughout Michigan, but the office where I work is located at the Central United Methodist Church in downtown Traverse City, and we have served clients throughout Northern Michigan, even including some from the Upper Peninsula. We also organize “traveling clinics” a few times a year, so that we can reach out to other Northern Michigan communities and offer our legal services to clients who have heard about us but may not otherwise be able to travel to Traverse City. This year alone, we have already held legal clinics in Benzie, Leelanau, and Emmet counties, in addition to our usual monthly clinics in Traverse City. We usually hold an immigration clinic in Benzie County at least once a year, at the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, at the top of the hill between Honor and Beulah. For 2018, this clinic was in September, and we helped five clients from the Benzie/Manistee area that day. Also, we will be giving a presentation at the St. Philip’s Church of Beulah on Thursday, November 15, at 6:30 p.m. on the topic of immigration.

Current: About how many clients do you juggle at one time? How many total cases in a year? What kinds of cases do you work on?

Betti: I am the only attorney in our Traverse City office, and we usually have between 40 to 80 open client files at any given time; just this year, we have already helped more than 75 clients, everything from one-time legal counseling consultations to full-fledged representation. Immigration cases vary greatly in terms of complexity and length, timewise. For example, helping a green card holder to apply for U.S. citizenship can be a straightforward process and may take only six months or so. On the other side of the spectrum, helping an undocumented person who was a victim of domestic violence to apply for a U visa—based on his or her cooperation with law enforcement authorities in the investigation and prosecution of that crime—may take 60-plus hours just to compile and submit the application, and then another four or five years for the government to process it. Every client situation is unique. Generally speaking, our organization helps individuals with family-based and humanitarian immigration matters. Types of cases that we work on include applications for permanent residence, AKA the “green card,” or immigrant visas that are based on marriage or other family relationship with a U.S. citizen; work-permit renewals for “deferred action for childhood arrivals,” commonly known as “DACA,” recipients; applications for asylum; special immigrant juvenile status for minor children who are present in the U.S. without one or both parents; U visas for victims of qualifying criminal activity; T visas for victims of human trafficking; and more. There are also times when there is nothing that we can do to help “fix” a client’s immigration problem. In those cases, breaking “bad news” to the client is itself a valuable service, because it makes the client less vulnerable to false promises by an unscrupulous lawyer or “notario.”

Current: Are you taking new clients?

Betti: Yes, we are always taking on new clients. When a potential client calls, we schedule them to an appointment, usually at one of our monthly clinics. On that day, the client will typically meet first with a volunteer, who conducts a thorough intake, and then with me for preliminary legal advice. If the client’s matter is something that our organization can help with, the client signs a representation agreement, and we schedule a follow-up consultation and go from there. Unfortunately, there will be times when we must turn down a client’s case, because we don’t have the capacity to handle it, because we are already overwhelmed with our other open cases. But that has been happening less and less since I started working there full time last summer.

Current: How have you seen your work grow and change since you began? And how do you hope that it will continue to grow and change?

Betti: I actually started working with JFON-MI on a part-time basis three years ago, in 2015. Since then, our country’s immigration policy has changed dramatically—not only do we see more clients seeking our services, but also the type of help that people are seeking has changed. The best examples are the calls that we now get regarding individuals who have been detained by immigration authorities. During the Obama administration, ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] focused on the detention and removal of individuals who had a criminal record. The Trump administration has moved away from that and is detaining individuals indiscriminately. The increased number of detentions has changed our work, as we now must help clients to ask the immigration judge to allow them to post bond and seek other immigration relief, including the cancellation of their removal/deportation proceedings. While I am proud that our organization can offer those services, I hope that the need for them will decrease; it is painful to watch how much families suffer (including U.S.-citizen spouses and children) when a family’s main breadwinner is suddenly detained. I do hope that our organization can continue to expand our service area. We are the only office north of Grand Rapids that offers free immigration legal services, yet there are many folks in, say, Alpena, Gaylord, and the Upper Peninsula who could benefit from our services but still don’t know about us.

Current: Anything in particular that you would like to share about your law practice or philosophy? What is the best or most rewarding part of your job?

Betti: I try really hard to listen and to not make assumptions about a client’s case. It is common for us to get a call from a client who believes they have a particular issue or goal, but then it turns out that they have completely different problems—or solutions!—to their situation. Which makes sense: immigration law is complex and convoluted, so it becomes the attorney’s job to listen to the client’s description of his/her situation, ask follow-up questions, and then, and only then, determine the client’s options. The most rewarding part of my job is to learn that the government has approved a client’s case, and to see the relief that brings to clients and their families.

Current: What do you have to say to people who are reading this and thinking, ‘Wow, what important work! I want to help. I wonder what I could do?’

Betti: As with most nonprofits organizations, our most pressing need is financial support. From time to time, we also have a need for Spanish-speaking volunteers, for interpreting during a clinic or for translating documents. By helping our organization, volunteers are also helping their community—when we help an individual to obtain a work permit or other form of immigration relief, that allows them to become part of our mainstream economy. Everyone wins.

Current: Speaking of the Northern Michigan economy, what could our area do to attract more talented young people to this area?

Betti: I think there is a substantial pay gap between Northern Michigan jobs versus comparable jobs in bigger cities. This is a particular challenge once you factor in the cost of living in a place like Traverse City, which is quite high for rural America, and the student loan burden that many—if not most—college graduates now carry. While it is a beautiful and safe place to live and raise a family, Northern Michigan is not an easy place for young people to make ends meet. Perhaps we will see more employers offering perks associated with flexible work schedules, daycare for young children, or even assistance with student loan repayment; the kinds of things that may encourage a young professional to stay in the area, despite the lower base pay.

Current: What else does Northern Michigan need? What are your hopes for this area for the future?

Betti: Improved transportation systems are a must. We have already seen a great leap in that regard over the past decade, with the Benzie Bus and an expansion of BATA routes out of Traverse City [to neighboring communities]. But it goes beyond that—having railway connections to other parts of the state and cheaper airfare out of Traverse City would also add to our economy and quality of living. As charming as Northern Michigan is, there is an obvious downside to being geographically isolated from the rest of the world, especially when you do what I do, and the nearest immigration court is in Detroit!

Current: What are the biggest challenges and rewards of working and living in Northern Michigan?

Betti: As I mentioned, geographical isolation and relatively lower pay are a couple of challenges. On the flipside, Northern Michigan is a very supportive community, including of the work that we do at JFON-MI. Perhaps because we live in an agricultural area, it is easier for folks to see the contributions that immigrants make to our local economy, which is why we see support for our work from all over the political spectrum.

Current: With the busy life of a lawyer, what other things are you involved with/able to squeeze in?

Betti: I try to play soccer as often as possible; this past summer, I played in two separate leagues in Traverse City.

Current: What are your favorite local events and activities? Any favorite dining, recreation, hiking spots? What’s your ideal autumn day look like? How would you spend it?

Betti: My wife has family in Benzie, so we try to make it out there as much as possible, since Benzie beaches are far, far superior to their Traverse City counterparts. I love to cook, so when in Benzie, I always try to visit the Market Basket and walk out with a box full of produce.

If you have questions or need help with immigration legal issues, you can reach the Justice For Our Neighbors office in Traverse City at 231-620-1100. Consultations are by appointment only; no walk-ins. JFON-MI offers services in English, Spanish, or Portuguese. Learn more at JFONMI.org online.

Interested in learning more about the complicated immigration system in the United States? St. Philip’s Episcopal Church of Beulah is hosting the second of a two-part conversation on this topic on Thursday, November 15, at 6:30 p.m. (The first part was a legal introduction to immigration, presented by Sarah Yore-VanOosterhout of Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates in Holland, Michigan.) You do not have to have attended the first part to get something out of the second part, which will have a panel discussion with a particular focus on Benzie County. All are invited to this special meeting of humans desiring to learn how to better care for and love our neighbors.

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