EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story described the Fernandes family’s pending exit from the country as a deportation. The family was instead denied green cards in its application for permanent residency and must leave the country on Feb. 27. The story also incorrectly characterized the origin of Curtis’ letter explaining the lack of communication, which was in a response to USCIS’ intent to deny Fernandes’ application for permanent residency status. A middle initial identifying Fernandes’ attorney also was added for clarification.
JACKSON, MI – A Jackson nonprofit for at-risk youth built by Neil Fernandes and his wife Veronica in the last decade is in jeopardy.
The couple and two of their children must leave the country after an “11th-hour” green card denial by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Fernandes attributes their pending exit from the U.S. back to Canada to a mistake of his attorney, who later wrote a letter on Fernandes’ behalf admitting fault for the lack of communication that led to the denial of his application for permanent residency.
After a long process that has cost him tens of thousands of dollars, Fernandes’ efforts to gain lawful permanent residency were denied, when a federal judge dismissed his lawsuit 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 would have never thought I’d have been held accountable for my lawyer’s mistake and that I would have upset 12 years of not only my life, but my children’s lives,” Fernandes said.
Fernandes was born in 1974 in Windsor and is a citizen of Canada. His faith led him to study the bible and world religions at Spring Arbor University in 2011, graduating in 2014. Based on relationships they forged in the Jackson community, he and Veronica founded Rise Above shortly thereafter, with Neil serving as the nonprofit’s pastor and executive director.
Rise Above offers educational support for students who have been suspended or expelled from their schools. In partnership with all Jackson County public school districts, Rise Above provides educational support, entrepreneurial instruction and faith-based programming in an effort to help teens restore relationships and recover academic credits.
While Fernandes worries how his family’s pending exit by Feb. 27 impacts his sons – one who is set to graduate and another who was planning to get married in July – his greatest concern is for the future of Rise Above, if he’s not there to run it.
“All of these groups have come to depend on my wife and I and our staff to provide a service to these teens who have nothing else,” Fernandes said. “They’ve been kicked out of school. They have no other recourse for academics, socialization, rehabilitation. It puts at risk Rise Above and the work that we’ve poured into it for the past 10 years. That really is the tragedy.”
Fernandes and his family have wide-reaching support from the Jackson community, including 23 letters submitted in his lawsuit from high-ranking Jackson officials, executives, superintendents, pastors and law enforcement officers.
That includes State Rep. Julie Alexander, R-Hanover; Spring Arbor University President Brent Ellis; Jackson Police and Fire Services 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 stress that Fernandes and his family are valuable members of the community and their exit would be a loss to the Jackson community.
“They touch countless lives, many that others in the community are unwilling or too afraid to interact with,” Jackson Interfaith Shelter CEO Steven Castle wrote. “This would be an incalculable loss to the community, and more importantly, to the teens who will end up in jail, or worse, without the opportunity for a way out, which Rise Above provides.”
Fernandes has to leave the country because USCIS found he was ineligible for permanent residency status based on having worked without employment authorization for more than 180 days.
Fernandes acknowledges this, but attributes it to a transition in attorneys when his previous attorney, Rahul Arora, who handled his visa renewal process, went into corporate law. During the handoff to new attorney Philip C. Curtis in March 2021, some important information wasn’t communicated to Fernandes, including that he needed to stop working beyond the expiration of his current visa on Aug. 23, 2021.
Curtis acknowledges he was at fault for the lack of communication in a response to USCIS’ notice of intent to deny, explaining that Fernandes continued to work beyond the 180 day limit because he was under the impression that his pending application for lawful permanent resident status allowed him to continue to work.
Curtis said he didn’t have any communication with Arora on Fernandes’ visa status and he did not clearly communicate to Fernandes that he could not work beyond the expiration.
“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 prior and current counsel, Mr. Fernandes engaged in a period of unauthorized employment which he would not have done had he correctly understood his status at the time. This was not his fault.”
USCIS informed Fernandes it intended to deny his pending visa application on July 6, 2022, before fully denying his and his family’s green card applications on Aug. 31, despite Fernandes’ “no fault of his own” defense.
USCIS does not comment on individual immigration cases.
However, in a statement, a spokesperson wrote, “USCIS adjudicators evaluate every request for immigration benefits fairly, humanely, and efficiently on a case-by-case basis before issuing a determination, and the agency is committed to upholding America’s promise as a nation of welcome and possibility with fairness, integrity, and respect for all we serve.”
Fernandes filed his lawsuit against USCIS Director Ur Mendoza Jaddou, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and USCIS Nebraska Service Center Director Loren K. Miller in October in U.S. District Court in Detroit seeking to reverse the denial.
The suit was dismissed. Judge Mark A. Goldsmith ruled that Fernandes’ case lacked “subject matter jurisdiction” because the district court lacked jurisdiction to review USCIS denials.
“This gives nobody any recourse anymore to have their case heard before a federal judge,” Fernandes said of the ruling, which was based on a Supreme Court ruling that held federal courts lack jurisdiction over all judgments related to the denial of adjustment of status.
As a result of the ruling, Fernandes has been unable to collect a paycheck for several months. He’s hopeful he can keep the nonprofit afloat while working remotely, but worries about its long term viability without being able to fundraise and work on site.
“We have a phenomenal staff here that do amazing work, but they are not the fundraising wing of Rise Above,” Fernandes said. “I pretty much am. If I can’t maintain those relationships, currently there is nobody within the organization that has the skill set, or the relationship base to continue the funding that Rise Above needs to be successful.”
Jackson County superintendents worry about the void left behind by the departure of Fernandes and his family, describing the impact they have had for the better part of a decade in working with at-risk youth.
“It really has filled a gap that was really non existent beforehand,” Northwest Community Schools Superintendent Geoff Bontrager said of Rise Above. “They really are flexible and work to meet the needs of each student where they need to be met.”
State laws leave expelled students with few options for getting back on track, da Vinci Institute Superintendent Sandy Maxson said. She credits the work done by Fernandes and Rise Above in meeting their needs in those circumstances, including three former da Vinci students this year.
“They share a lot more than just education,” Maxson said. “They work very well with students who have had trauma in their life and who are going through difficult situations with family.”
A GoFundMe has been set up to help the Fernandes family with expenses during this time, with plans to benefit Rise Above if it meets its $25,000 goal. It has currently raised nearly $14,000.
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