Coming to America

News, Summer 2017
Lacy Refugee

OMAHA ORGANIZATIONS OFFER A PATH FORWARD FOR IMMIGRANTS

BY JENNIFER LITTON

For those welcomed and resettled in Nebraska as refugees, or those hiding in the shadows as undocumented immigrants, the status quo is shifting. Since President Trump took office, phones have been ringing off the hook at places like Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska, Heartland Workers Center and Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska.

Families wonder if they will be broken up and homeowners are making plans for what to do with their property in case of deportation.

When a new executive order is released, it affects these organizations on a fundamental level. On February 3, 2017, when Trump halted the funding of refugee resettlement as part of his executive order, “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska had no choice but to eliminate 15 employee positions in the organization’s 90-day federally funded refugee resettlement program in Omaha and Lincoln.

Trump’s travel ban reduced the number of refugees being allowed into the country from 110,000 down to 50,000, says Lacey Studnicka, program development officer with Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska. “Refugees stopped coming for a period of time and a lot of agencies across the country had to close their offices.” We got hundreds of phone calls,” she says. Parents who had been separated from their children during war were making plans to reunite with them. “And then the ban happened. “Two executive orders issued a travel ban, but the Supreme Court has limited its applicability and will hear arguments on the case this October, Studnicka says.

The refugees being helped by Lutheran Family Services come from war-torn places across the world such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. These families have lost everything and have endured unspeakable violence. A lot of our guys from Afghanistan were interpreters for the U.S. military. They served next to our troops for 10 years. A lot of these guys saved American lives,” Studnicka says, adding that even though some of them have very high security clearance within the military, it can still take them two or three years to get through the vetting process. “

It is a legacy of the United States to be welcoming, to be a place of safety for those who need it,” Studnicka says. “As a country, we’ve always prioritized family reunification because it’s really important to us. Refugee resettlement started after World War II. We started providing safety to holocaust survivors and it has just grown from there. “Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska provides several multifaceted programs to provide safety, hope and well-being, including employment services, interpretation services, legal services, education and employment, reception and placement and support. Located inside Lutheran Family Services is The International Center for the Heartland, a United Way Initiative that provides a single location for newly arrived foreign-born Nebraska residents to find answers, guidance and culturally appropriate expertise for their needs.

Besides Lutheran Family Services, there are two other agencies that resettle refugees in Nebraska: The Refugee Empowerment Center and Catholic Social Services. The International Center of the Heartland has a food access site for refugees. Many items are needed, including meat, produce, drinks, spices, baking items and non-food items such as diapers and toiletries. To make a donation, contact Dekow Sagar at dsagar@LFSneb.org. Besides donating, anyone is welcome to help sponsor a refugee family, and there are varying levels of sponsorship. The refugee resettlement program receives help from congregations, service groups and businesses.

Refugees do best integrating into a new community when they receive love and support from the community. “Their chance for success is so much greater, “she says. Refugees have lived through the horrors of war, lost family members and been witness to human tragedy. Yet despite all of that, refugees are the ones providing the wisdom, Studnicka says. “They tell us, ‘It’s going to be OK. This too, shall pass.’ “After the travel ban, Lutheran Family Services organized two vigils in Omaha. One was on February 20, 2017. Crowds lined Dodge Street to show support. “We asked them to give signs of hope and love instead of protest, because this is a time where we need to come together.

This issue is bipartisan. We’ve had very conservative people, very liberal people who love and welcome refugees and believe in those American values of showing safety and support to those who need it.” Many refugees were afraid to leave their homes, but seeing Omaha come out in the thousands to show their support made a difference, Studnicka says.

SLOW AND UNCERTAIN PATH TO CITIZENSHIP

According to the New American Economy, there are 41,484 undocumented immigrants in Nebraska. In the U.S. there are an estimated 11.4 million undocumented immigrants. According to an article by Sascha Krannich, on the website Nebraskans for Peace, a grassroots advocacy organization, Nebraska’s state policy on immigrants has been lenient in the past, but it is now trending toward restrictive. Nationwide, one extreme case is Arizona’s SB 1070law that required police officers to demand papers of people suspected of being in the country illegally. The law ended in 2015, but as a result of this bill, the state of Arizona ended up losing $141 million in revenue due to cancelled conventions, according to the Center for American Progress. In May, Texas Governor Gregg Abbott (R) signed S.B. 4 into law.

It is known as the “anti-sanctuary law,” which bans sanctuary cities by punishing jurisdictions that do not fully cooperate with federal immigration officials. The law permits law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of anyone. Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, along with Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer, issued a statement distancing themselves from Trump’s deportation efforts.“ Please be assured that Omaha police officers do not and will not seek out individuals to check on their legal status,” they said in a joint statement. That includes DREAMers, a term used to define individuals in the U.S. who were brought to the country at an early age without documentation.

The DREAM Act, which was originally introduced in 2001, specified a six-year path for undocumented immigrants to become U.S. citizens. In 2010, the DREAM act failed to pass the House, but the name stuck. One Omaha former DREAMer is 28-year-old Yanira Garcia. Although she recently obtained her green card status and is now a legal permanent resident, Garcia still refers to herself as a DREAMer, an identity that stays with her. Garcia, an undergraduate admissions representative at the University of Nebraska Omaha, arrived in South Omaha from Mexico when she was in the fourth grade, attending Indian Hills Elementary.

She noticed right away how things were much nicer here than at her hometown school in Mexico. “You got a box of crayons for free and you got paper and you could do these cool art projects—for a little fourth grader, it was like being in a paradise,” she says. Garcia went on to graduate from Omaha South High School and eventually took classes at Bellevue University before transferring to UNO. It was while in college she met her husband, Roger Garcia, now executive director of Centro Latino of Iowa, an agency that educates and empowers Hispanic/Latino individuals and families.

In 2012, President Obama implemented a new program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals(DACA). Under DACA, undocumented immigrants are provided work permits, a social security card in order to work legally, and a reprieve from deportation to people who arrive in the United States as children, and who meet certain other requirements.

Garcia remembers the day in 2012 when President Obama announced his executive order for DACA. On that day, she chose to not pay attention to the news. While she was hopeful for her future, she did not want to get her heart broken again. She remembered a Spanish phrase her parents had said to her many times, “Laesperanza es la última que muere.” The phrase translated to English means, “Hope is the last thing to die.” “Personally, I was never hopeless. Deep down inside, I always hoped that someday things would change,” she says. A friend called her and asked, “Did you hear what Obama did? ”She remembers trying not to react. She had been down this uncertain road many times. In 2010, when the Senate voted on the initial DREAM Act, it failed to pass by a handful of votes. “It was so close for it to become a reality, but it didn’t happen after all.

It tore many of us apart because it was the first time in many years that we had gotten that close to a real solution,” she says. Garcia was hesitant to act on the new executive order. “Even though I know it benefits me, it’s not going to harm me in any way, but at the same time, when a new executive order is out there, there is still some uncertainty.” About a year-and-a-half later, she finally completed her DACA application. Garcia believes there is a negative connotation to being undocumented in Nebraska. She prefers the term “undocumented” over “illegal.” She says a person cannot be illegal. “After all, we’re talking about people. In our case, we didn’t make a decision to come here. We were brought here. And we call this place our home.”

Of the Trump administration’s stance on immigration, Garcia says, “We don’t know what’s going to happen.” In mid-June of 2017, President Trump announced he would not revoke DACA. But he rescinded President Obama’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA. Under DAPA, the undocumented parents of Americans or lawful permanent residents who have lived in the U.S. since January 1, 2010 would have been able to apply for permission to work and permission to stay in the U.S. for three years. Locally, the Nebraska Attorney General signed onto a letter asking the Trump administration to rescind the DACA executive action authorized by former President Barack Obama. This is in direct contrast to the wishes of the Nebraska State Legislature. which recently passed a resolution reaffirming its support of DACA youth.

The Garcia couple knows family members and friends who live in fear every day. “All of us have a cousin or extended family member who is undocumented,” says her husband Roger Garcia. These friends and family members are making plans for what they will do if they get deported. “For my parents, their American dream was to bring us here to make sure we got an education, you know, a better future,” she says. Her father came as a migrant worker to California nearly 30 years ago from Mexico. He settled in Omaha and worked at a meatpacking plant. “I don’t know how he does it, but he managed to get us through school and get us through college. He helped us out however he could. ”She recalls her father sharing with her his feelings about being undocumented.“ He said, ‘I know I’m not from here and I know this can be taken from me any time.’” It is this type of fear Garcia remembers growing up with.

She speaks of America’s broken immigration system. Her mother submitted her legal permanent residency application in 2001. “We still haven’t heard anything. We’ve checked through various immigration lawyers.” Garcia says the last time they checked, the offices were still reviewing applications from 1996. “Imagine how long it will take to get to 2001?”Roger Garcia says that there has been a lot of uncertainty in the Latino community, but it’s important to remember that the current law remains in place and the system worked for them. “The current law worked because she [Yanira]was able to adjust her status and now she’s a legal permanent resident.”

LEGAL SOLUTIONS FOR THOSE IN NEED

This year alone, U.S. immigration arrests are up nearly 40 percent. “We have specifically seen some changes in the administrative policies of the United States government under the new administration,” says Emiliano Lerda, executive director of Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska. “There have been significant increases in removals or deportations in the last quarter, compared to the same quarter the year before,” he says. Lerda says that the Trump administration has also changed its priorities for enforcement purposes for deportation.

“The new administration has widened that category to include people that may even just be guilty of being in this country without proper documentation, but they are not a threat to public safety.”Lerda says this has impacted their services significantly. “We are inundated with phone calls from churches, other non-profits and institutions that work with immigrants. Because of all of this, service providers want to better understand our immigration legal system.

They want to better understand how they can be helpful to the immigrant community and provide some guidance to them.”Lerda says that there are a lot of people in this country who do not have lawful status, but could have lawful status. “We have a legal remedy for them. We basically hold their hand and walk them through this complicated immigration process so that on the other side they can walk away with lawful status.” He says that Justice For Our Neighbors-Nebraska is the busiest it has ever been.“ In 2016, we provided pro-bono immigration legal services to more than2,700 cases and our overall success rate has been about 98 percent.”Lerda says that on February 11, 2017, Justice For Our Neighbors-Nebraska joined forces with groups such as The Refugee Empowerment Center and Nebraska Appleseed to host a “Train-the-Trainer” event to help many nonprofits and institutions learn how to be more helpful to the immigrant community.

The handbook created for the event is available for download on Justice For Our Neighbors-Nebraska’s website under “resources” and is titled “Rights and Planning Guide.” Lerda’s advice to immigrants is to not panic. “Understand your rights and don’t be afraid to assert those rights. Know your options under the law.” He advises undocumented immigrants to speak to an immigration attorney to determine options and have a safety plan in place in case a family member were to get arrested, detained and possibly deported. Consider who will pick up the children from school and who will take custody of the children.

Studnicka of Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska says there are millions of people in the world who need safety. “I’m grateful that we can affect a few. I get to experience the pure love and generosity of the community every day. People calling and asking, ‘How can we help?’ and just helping to transform people’s lives, and that’s a gift.” W

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