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All Cultures Equal and the changing face of America

Organization grows, expands with needs of the community

— Daily Freeman-Journal photos by Kristine Peed Chien Maikhio, assistant director of All Cultures Equal, and Janet Toering, director, page through the massive Guide for Immigration Advocates. ACE Community Center is the only immigration advocate office in North Central Iowa, according to Toering.

Once intended to be a place where people from different cultural backgrounds could come together, All Cultures Equal, located at 1440 Second St. Webster City, began with a vision. It was to create community awareness about other cultures while helping immigrants learn more about the United States, making their assimilation easier. Within the past two years, ACE has experienced a shift in its focus, working to change their image, as they have recognized the changing needs of a growing immigrant population.

Today, ACE Community Center is the only immigration advocate office in North Central Iowa, according to Director Janet Toering. With the recent change in administration, comes increased uncertainty about how the enforcement of existing immigration policies and changes in policy will impact not only immigrants but the entire American population.

“The whole purpose of ACE has been enhanced,” said Toering. “A couple of years ago our board decided that the most important thing we could do was to provide a missing service, one found nowhere else. Providing English language classes for adults, helping people get their legal status, and for us to become knowledgeable about immigration law became a priority,” Toering said. “Things are changing a lot. The founders of ACE intended this to be a progressive thing in Hamilton County,” she said.

As a result, ACE now has two active paralegals, Toering and Chien Maikhio. Maikhio came from Laos to America in 1979, at the age of 10. She is currently the assistant director at ACE, and an assistant immigration paralegal. With two immigration paralegals on staff, their goal now, is to provide reliable information, make recommendations about immigration law compliance and to help insure the best possible outcomes for individuals, families and communities. ACE paralegals receive the latest updates on immigration from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the National Immigration Law Council, Catholic Legal Immigration (CLI), World Relief, United We Stand and attorneys from the National Organization of Immigration Lawyers. “It is information pertinent to everyone,” Toering said.

Toering and Maikhio studied immigration laws and regulations, took intense training and the mandatory testing. “Immigration policy is very complicated and it’s a system that most agree is broken,” said Toering. One fact they are trying to make known is that there are people “practicing law” so to speak. They have never had any training but are trying to help immigrants by assisting them fill out forms.

“But they are not accredited,” she explained, and while this is a well-intentioned gesture it is a potentially risky one.” Not only do the forms need to be filled out and seen by accredited people, but ACE is a recognized by the Department of Justice as a place that can assist with that. The number one reason families get split up or people are deported is because U.S. citizenship forms are improperly filled out. “Filling out paperwork by individuals not accredited used to work, but not anymore,” she explained, adding that the fees have also dramatically increased recently. It amazes her how fast things are changing, and there are more changes ahead, she said.

The Obama administration deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants, more in fact, than the previous two administrations. In 2014, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created the Priority Enforcement Program. It effectively created new guidelines for deportation enforcement by prioritizing those who posed a threat to public safety or national security. Attempts to reform the immigration system also proposed finding a way to make citizenship possible for millions of others.

With the new administration, however, came a commitment by President Trump to control illegal immigration, and an executive order, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” that means broader and tougher enforcement practices. The state of the nation’s immigration policy and how it is enforced has a direct impact on not only immigrants, but every U.S. citizen as well. While fears are naturally greatest among the undocumented immigrant population, many Americans also feel the urgent threat of what the proposed mass deportation of an estimated 11 million immigrants could mean to their families and friends, their businesses and to the overall economic stability of the country. Aggressive deportation efforts, penalties for “sanctuary cities,” and a greater dependence on communities’ local authorities by forcing mandatory compliance to identify and turn over immigrants to federal agents are part of the agenda. “In this county if that happened we would be in an economic disaster,” said Toering.

Concerns now about human rights violations, deportations, families being separated as a result of more aggressive enforcement by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are enormous, and opinions concerning the new mandates are divisive. Many schools, communities and cities (referred to as sanctuary cities) have declared defiance of the administration’s executive order, and the situation has sparked protests across the country.

ACE is making efforts now to let the immigrant population aware of their basic rights under the U.S. Constitution, and how to protect those rights if they have to deal with ICE. They have also been instructed to make information available to different sites in the community.

“Right now we are supposed to be going to the schools and other public places, like churches and hospitals, where people are entitled, no matter who they are, to get an education, and they are entitled to get health services, and we work with them on their policies to make sure there are no prejudices, biases, bullying or denying people help, based on those policies,” said Toering.

Toering has a passion for her job, and training to become a paralegal has made her even more aware of how difficult the challenges are to immigrants. Finding a pathway to becoming documented is for the most part impossible, much less to becoming a citizen, she stated.

“You have to be here as a permanent resident, which is the first step, because you don’t automatically get to be here as a citizen, and it takes a while to become a permanent resident. So people are here on visas and work permits. But a visa just gets you here, with permission to be student, permission to find work, but then you have to turn in an I-90 to get a work permit. This is “non-immigrant” status. So when you get a visa or a travel passport you are only allowed to be here temporarily,” said Toering.

She went on to explain, that a person has to be here consistently for a long period of time, have a clean record, and go through some hoops to get a “green card.” Green cards that are given to refugees grant permanent residency. If a green card expires you are not an illegal immigrant but you are considered to be “out of status” After 180 days, you will lose valid proof of your right to work in the United States. You can be refused reentry into the United States if you travel outside the country and you will not be able to renew your driver’s license or apply to become a naturalized citizen.

Being “undocumented” refers to not having permission to be in the United States, either with a current visa, or work permit, a green card or a US citizenship card. There are millions of people in the Unites States that are undocumented, according to Toering. The problem is there is no reasonable route by which they can become documented. Some are here because they were brought as a small child by parents that never got a green card, so they are undocumented. If undocumented, you don’t get a social security card. And there is no way to fix that, she said.

In 2012, an executive order, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was signed by Obama. It allowed immigrants who entered the United States as minors to receive a period of deferment from deportation and eligibility for a work permit. They must have entered the U.S. before turning 16, , be in school, a high school graduate or honorably discharged from the military and be under the age of 31, not be convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors or pose a threat to national security. The program does not provide a pathway to citizenship or eligibility for federal welfare or student aid. It was a way to view those who acted as good citizens as “low priority” by immigration enforcement agents.

“With the recent election, one of the things on the docket is to take back some of the former administrations executive orders concerning immigration. The DACA program (and a similar program, DAPA, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans) is one of the things that could be pulled, which means there will be millions of young people who will no longer have a valid work card,” said Toering.

Mass Deportations purposed

The estimated costs of deportation have increased according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official Department of Homeland Security website. Immigration from Mexico has decreased, and immigration from more distant Central American countries increased, as thousands have attempted to evade persecution and seek asylum. Deportation will require more people, time, and money, according to their research and conclusions.

From the farming industry, manufacturing, professional and business industry to hospitality, wholesale, construction and more, there are over 7 million undocumented immigrants working or seeking work in the private sector, according to the bipartisan American Action Forum website. Some industries with the higher concentration of immigrant workers will be hit harder than others, and be devastated, if mass deportation occurs. Presenting two different time frame scenarios, their conclusion remained the same, “More recently we have examined what it would take to execute Donald Trump’s promise to remove all undocumented immigrants within just two years.” Both were found will cost over $1 trillion.” The report stated.

The human cost will be immense, and Toering and Maikhio are focusing on helping immigrants understand the facts, and a reality that necessitates them having a plan, such as how to handle something as simple as a traffic stop, planning for a raid, making sure they always carry any valid immigration documentation, keeping important documents in a safe place where they can be accessed, have information ready if they need to contact an immigration attorney, contacting family if they are detained, and in the worst case scenario, have someone willing to take their children if they are deported. “The big fear with all of these developments is deportation,” Toering stated.

The Center for Migration Studies (CMS) has concluded that the impact on the “social and economic status of millions of US citizens would be substantially jeopardized by a mass deportation program.”For example, there are at least 3.3 million mixed status household, meaning documented or citizen/undocumented households in the U.S. Some of these immigrants have resided here for over 10 years and help support household mortgages and over 5.7 million American born children under the age of 18. Mass deportation would result in high default rates and the staggering financial burden of raising the citizen children who would be left behind. These and other statistics resulting in the recommendation that mixed-status families should be kept intact can be found on the CMS website.

“We have spoken to the schools and asked them how we can help, such as with after school mentoring, with our Spanish program to help teachers, classes here, so that has emerged. We’ve helped the hospital, and we have translators here. We try to help businesses. Last year we had conversations with six different groups of people to learn why people from other countries are not using our banking system. They are attempting to engage and inform as many immigrants and citizens as possible to inform them and be prepared for the changes on the horizon.

The grand need in this community and around the world is to help people to understand each other, despite their different languages, to get them to communicate with each other and afford each other the basic human rights, Toering expressed. “So this is really a social service in terms of helping people to connect with each other,” she said.

For more information about ACE, the classes and services they provide call 515-832-4153. Or contact Office@AllCulturesEqual.org

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