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‘I am an immigrant’: Clinic staff make case for empathy, assistance

How easy would it be to walk in the shoes of an aspiring immigrant fleeing persecution in his or her home country to seek asylum in the United States? Could you even imagine it at all?

National immigration law expert Professor Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, who is director and founder of the Pennsylvania State University Law Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, and graduate students Kaitlyn Box and Berenice Beltran Maldonado explained the myths and realities of challenges immigrants experience in search of a decent life for their families. The clinic is nationally recognized for its work assisting those who seek a path to United States citizenship.

Wadhia, Box and Maldonado noted the clinic is supported by three pillars of purpose: community outreach and education; pro bono legal assistance; and policy work. Educational topics include remedies for victims of crime; DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival)s; the travel ban; and immigration enforcement.

Students like Maldonado, a postgraduate student in the PSU School of international Affairs and also a law student in the clinic and Box, a third-year law student, practice law in the clinical setting under the supervision of an attorney where they gain practical experience working cases for real clients.

“They learn by doing,” emphasized Wadhia.

The clinic has recently provided pro bono legal services for immigrants housed at the Berks County residential detention center in Leesport, Pennsylvania. The Center currently houses 32 parents and 30 children from Mexico, Haiti and Central American countries, according to its website.

Maldonado explained that the goal of this presentation was educational, to describe what the law clinic does and for attendees to gain an understanding of immigration agencies and core terminology.

Understanding the vocabulary of immigration is important, said Box, as terms like alien, refugee, non-citizen, undocumented, permanent resident, green card, immigrant and the like “shape perceptions, attitudes and behaviors of individuals.”

“I am an immigrant,” Maldonado pointed out, because at the age of three and a half she came to the United States with her family for the purpose of remaining here permanently.

Putting audience members into the shoes of immigrants who must navigate the immigration system was an important part of the educational process.

To encourage empathy, Box and Maldonado asked people to share their own immigrant family histories with each other if they knew those stories. They were asked to imagine the difficulties and challenges their own family members and ancestors might have faced and to fill out a simple I-589 form, an application of Asylum and for Withholding of Removal, like those expected to be filled out by hopeful immigrants to the U.S. The form calls for basic identifying information filled into 25 separate boxes.

The questions and answers were not as simple as they should have been for most in the audience. The forms were written in Spanish and needed to be filled out in Spanish.

Immigrants heading north to the U.S. would receive forms required to be read and filled out in English, impossible for most to complete without help, Box and Maldonado explained.

The program included seven immigration myths and facts presented by clinic staff members.

Thrive International Programs, the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race, the law clinic, and City Alliance Church organized the clinic staff members’ visit to Williamsport. Adding a multicultural experience to the activities was a buffet supper catered by Hachiko Asian Cuisine, Don Patron, Jasmine, Crown Fried Chicken, and Laziza Pakwan.

The Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank more critical of immigration and illegal immigration in particular, was offered an opportunity to share its viewpoint on the issues but did not respond to the Sun-Gazette.

Federal agencies that immigrants may deal with in the process of immigration include the following:

ICE: Immigration and Customs Enforcement; USCIS, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; the U.S. Border Patrol; and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, falling under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security, noted Maldonado.

The law students thanked Thrive International Programs, led by Jodi Lantz, for “their incredible work” in the Williamsport area.

“Thrive does so much great work,” said Box, “to ensure that immigrants in the Williamsport community feel welcomed and have access to all of the resources that they need. … We partnered with Thrive on one project to help immigrants in the community and that is the creation of informational packets to help individuals who are applying for asylum without the assistance of an attorney.”

Myth: Undocumented women give birth to “anchor babies” in the United States to avoid deportation.

Fact: Even though the child becomes an American citizen, he or she cannot petition for the parents to live legally the United States until reaching the age of 21. The parents are still at risk.

Myth: Immigrants compete with American workers for jobs.

Fact: States with more immigrants have lower levels of unemployment.

Myth: Immigrants create expense for American taxpayers.

Fact: Immigrants pay $11 billion in federal, state and local taxes per year.

Myth: Immigrants send all their money back to their home countries.

Fact: Immigrants contribute considerable amounts to consumer spending and also pay sales tax on goods they buy in the United States.

Myth: A strong border wall will deter illegal immigrants.

Fact: Some enter by boat or plane or pay smugglers to transport them over the border. Some enter the county legally but overstay their visas. And some are so desperate that there is no deterrence for them.

MYTH: There is a national security crisis at the border with Mexico.

FACT: There is no evidence of that. In 2018 only six individuals were stopped and flagged as potential terrorists and illegal drugs generally are brought into the United States by vehicle.

MYTH: Immigrants bring crime and violence to the United States.

FACT: Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or to be incarcerated than native-born individuals. Crime rates are lowest in areas of high immigrant populations.

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