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Viewpoint: Why do immigrants remain undocumented for years?

By Bobbie Kuhn and Barb de Souza, River Falls Ecumenical Asylum Committee

Have you heard, as we have,"Why do immigrants remain illegal (undocumented) for years instead of getting asylum or a green card?"

Well, we know why, and we wonder if people realize the obstacles and expense that immigrants face in this country.

About four years ago, soon after the news of the thousands of people coming from Central America to the U.S. border seeking safety from gangs and abject poverty, we felt called to do something to help. We enlisted the help of seven churches in River Falls and with information acquired from Barb's Spanish teacher, we were able to enlist the help of an immigration lawyer and later a contact who put us in touch with a Jesuit shelter for women and children in Nogales, Mexico. Before long, we were introduced through Skype to a family seeking asylum in the U. S. On Feb 2, 2016, our lives were forever changed when this tired family arrived at midnight at the MSP International Airport.

We formed a group, the Ecumenical Asylum Committee with representatives from the seven churches to support this family with daily necessities such as shelter, food, clothing, school registrations as well as English lessons and transportation and, last but not least, adapting to life in Wisconsin and the U.S.A.

We were surprised by the costs as well as the agony of the paperwork and red tape that becoming legal (documented) requires. Lucky for us, our lawyer got us through the asylum process pro bono (not something others can count on), after which the family did acquire asylum, but not without many trips for health checks, fingerprinting, two court hearings at Fort Snelling followed by the last, an agonizing four-hour hearing.

We soon learned that having asylum does not give you enough status for the good jobs which require green cards and a state ID even though you have legal working papers. Our asylum family would not be able to survive without permanent residency, i.e. a green card. This meant more work for the lawyer, filling out mounds of forms, paying for the green cards and required physicals, a total of $7,000.

How would any immigrant family be able to come up with this kind of money, learn English, find and pay for transportation as well as their way to all of the check-ins, lawyers and other required meetings without help? They would have to figure this out on their own and struggle to find jobs for necessities as well as raise the money to become documented thus legal residents.

We believe these facts are the reason so many people remain illegal (undocumented), for this could take years to do on their own. But we know they truly want to become permanent residents because they want to live in our country. We do recognize that this family was lucky. We felt called by our faith to help but we, like many of you were not aware of the costs nor all the procedures or bureaucracy, as well as the anguish and stress involved.

We would like people to know about these difficulties so that if someone should ask why these "illegals" (undocumented) don't try to become "legal," we know it is not easy to become "legal." Ask anyone in the Ecumenical Asylum Group which meets the first Monday of every other month at 6:30 p.m. in the United Methodist Church. You are invited to learn more.