On Oct. 22, The Office of Community Engagement held a panel discussion about U.S. immigration law and the dangers immigrants, particularly immigrant women, face. The panel, “Immigration Policy: The Reality of Immigration in Austin,” is part of the office’s Social Action Series.
Panelists Laurie Cook-Heffron and Sarah Woelk discussed immigration from the perspectives of their respective fields.
Cook-Heffron is a social work professor at St. Edward’s and a practicing social worker. She has studied the abuses of immigrant women in different settings, including the types of dangers they face when crossing the border into the U.S. and while in detention systems.
Woelk is an immigration lawyer who works with Casa Marianella, a shelter that houses immigrants and refugees in East Austin.
Woelk explained some aspects of immigration law to the audience of St. Edward’s students.
She said that immigrants can apply to become U.S. citizens in many different ways, but none guarantee them citizenship. Application processes can take anywhere from less than a year to 20 years, depending on the eligibility of the applicant. Applicants can be denied admission based on these reasons: criminal history, past immigration violations (such as entering the country illegally) and communicable diseases or other health issues.
Woelk said that the highest influx of immigrants now are coming from Mexico, the Philippines, China and India.
When people apply for citizenship in the U.S., they are essentially taking a number in order to wait in line to be granted citizenship. In countries with a high influx of people applying for citizenship, those lines are much longer. Therefore, it takes a lot longer for those people to be granted citizenship.
When talking about the citizenship process, Woelk said “it’s complicated, there’s lots of pitfalls.”
She said that common pitfalls of immigrants applying for citizenship is that they can age out of being eligible or they can be defrauded by groups who don’t have their best interests in mind.
Immigrants seeking the help of outside organizations can be hit with yearly fees for their services. Woelk says that immigrants are full of hope and trusting of people who say they want to help them, because of this, there is a high risk of them having their money taken or falling for scams unnecessarily.
On the other side of the discussion, Cook-Heffron discussed dangers that primarily immigrant women face when trying to gain citizenship or asylum.
Many immigrant women from Central America enter the U.S. seeking asylum, which means they are looking to be granted citizenship based on dangers in their home countries such as domestic abuse, cartel violence or other circumstances.
Upon entering the U.S., these women are often sent to detention centers while they await their trials. According to Cook-Heffron, these centers, or “perreras” (dog kennels) “create negative mental health symptoms.”
“[This] isolates people from the outside community. There is no way to make [detention centers] a trauma-informed approach,” Cook-Heffron said.
She also highlighted how detention centers mirror relationship violence in that they both involve withholding information and sexual harassment or assault.
Cook-Heffron discussed some resources people can work with to help immigrants, including RAICES, Grassroots Leadership, speaking at the Capitol and simply starting conversations about immigration.
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