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Locals hope to use new Immigration Voice Project to lobby legislators

BY ELISE DILGER | FEBRUARY 28, 2012 6:30 AM

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Members of one local church say they've noticed an increase in the number of immigrants attending services, so they will launch a project to help the newcvomers establish lives in the community.

Officials at the Iowa City First African Church of the Nazarene, 920 S. Dubuque St., will start the Immigrant Voice Project on Saturday, providing an outlet for new and old immigrants to share experiences of coming to the United States.

Parish nurse Teresa Stecker and other church members said they've noticed an increase in the number of immigrants in both the community and attending church.

"I was told the community consisted of elderly couples," she said, describing when she joined the church. "But as I walked around, I realized the community has changed. I started noticing different cultures and many languages with the one thing in common: of feeling isolated in the community."

Church member Susan Murty, a University of Iowa associate professor of social work, said she will help lead the project. She said project volunteers will gather anonymous immigrants' stories, and other church members said they hope to then meet with the Iowa City City Council to show the challenges immigrants in Iowa face.

"[Church members] want to work together with immigrants to make changes and make this a better place for immigrants to live," Murty said.

Volunteers will be asked to find five immigrants in the area willing to share their stories, she said.
"Most people do not feel comfortable telling their stories to us," she said. "Because some of these issues are too personal to tell strangers."

One legislator said immigrants will be treated equally as long as they follow legal procedures.

"As long as immigrant have green cards, I don't see why they would be treated any differently," said Sen. Thomas Courtney, D-Burlington.

But Murty said even legal immigrants often face challenges maintaining a job, accessing transportation, and fearing deportation if they are here without documentation.

"Few people understand what these immigrants are going through, and our goal is to make that known," she said.

Stecker said the project is a part of the church's Immigrant Center, which was established five years ago to help the newcomers secure jobs, health care, childcare, and access to transportation.

The center also offers classes in English as a second language, tutoring programs, and preschool programs to help the youth, taught by 50 volunteers in the congregation.

The Immigration Center received approval from the national Board of Immigration Appeals in December 2011 to become certified to provide legal assistance to local immigrants, beginning in April.

At an Immigration Conference Feb. 25, University of Iowa law Professor Barbara Schwartz said that often, immigrant children are the most affected by their families' hardships.

"Many immigrants who grew up in the U.S. are the ones who have the most trouble," she said.

"Because they think they are judged on the same standards as their U.S. citizen peers, but unfortunately, they are not."

However, she said, immigrants who came to America as adults tend to have fewer problems with the law compared to youth.

"First-generation immigrants have no higher rate of criminal conduct than U.S. citizens," she said.


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