Immigration reform, if passed, would only be 1st step

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Comprehensive Immigration Reform has been on the horizon for a decade and a half. But with partisan disputes, it has never really moved from its frustrating spot in the distance.

In light of the possible reform, there is the question of whether nonprofit organizations across the country have the capacity to take care of the 11 million undocumented immigrants who will qualify for legalization. This question is especially relevant in Washington state, where we have 230,000 unauthorized immigrants waiting on reform.

If Congress provides legalization and a path to citizenship the job of incorporating immigrants into America would not be finished. The real work would still lie ahead. People would need services to help them meet language requirements and fill out complicated legal forms.

As students in Whitman College’s community-based research program on The State of the State for Washington Latinos, we partnered with OneAmerica, an immigrant justice organization that helps smaller organizations in our state get funding.

We interviewed the heads of 10 immigrant service organizations, gathered data about a dozen other such agencies, and interviewed four immigrants to find out what challenges immigrants and the organizations trying to serve them are facing.

This research showed organizations need more access to resources to meet the needs of Washington immigrants. But it also showed something that gave us hope — individuals and organizations successfully meeting real immigrant needs.

Immigrants would not have access to essential resources like citizenship classes and legal assistance if these organizations were not providing them.

Providing immigration services is challenging, though, due to the serious lack of resources. The lack of funding affects staff-to-client ratios, BIA accreditation and the client capacity of these organizations.

BIA accredited staff are recognized by the Board of Immigration Appeals and are more equipped to handle complex legal cases than other service providers.

These services are essential in the lives of many people, and are key to implementing national immigration policy on a local level. It is concerning there is not more comprehensive public funding to ensure these organizations can provide services to all who need them.

According to service providers and immigrants, public attitudes of hostility toward immigrants remain distressingly strong, and that helps explain these agencies’ underfunding.

Interviews with providers show many people refuse to donate to immigrant services because they hold prejudice against immigrants. Our interviewees suggested this prejudice is rooted in fear, racism and faulty education about the reasons people immigrate to the U.S.

This prejudice is deeply harmful. Immigrants voiced experiencing trauma from stigmas related to their legal status. Name-calling and verbal abuse at school — to name a couple examples — made daily life extremely hard for our interviewees. Their stories show there is a real need for culturally conscious counseling services to help them cope with trauma.

Those we interviewed also explained they don’t know what services are available, especially in Eastern Washington where there are few services to begin with.

Aside from the geographic disparity between Eastern and Western Washington, we also found many immigrants lack funds to get the services they need, and often the free time to wait in line for them.

It should be clear that immigrants and immigration service providers already face a number of challenges. This reality will become even more challenging when 230,000 people in this state are made newly eligible for legalization.

We recommend increased funding for BIA accreditation, better distribution of services in Central and Eastern Washington, and improved counseling resources to address immigration-related trauma.

We commend the work that has already been done by many of our interviewees and encourage these individuals to continue to press for more support from organizations, as well as local, state and federal government.

With this continued effort backed by the support of service organizations and state and local governments Washington state can move closer to meeting the needs of all its residents.

Jackie Bonilla, Class of 2016, is a sociology major from Los Angeles. Gladys Gitau, Class of 2016, is a politics major from Lawrence, Mass. Eve Penberthy, Class of 2016, is an environmental studies-politics major from San Anselmo, Calif.

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