Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Marshalltown group helping immigrants adjust to new environment

Members of Immigrant Allies of Marshalltown organize numerous events and provide resources to help immigrants adapt to a new environment.

By Wynn Tan

Imagine moving to a new area, completely different with no familiar faces, like Turkistan, Kyrgyzstan or China, and not knowing the language, lingo, culture or social etiquette. You may mean to order some dumplings but actually say you want to take a nap.

For many immigrants, adjusting to a new culture is hard and members of the Immigrant Allies of Marshalltown are working to make adapting easier for many of the town’s newly arrived residents. Joa LaVille, president of Immigrant Allies, said the organization was founded in 2010 and inspired by other groups.

“A lot of us are part of other clubs and a lot of them had been addressing immigration so we decided to form an organization and center it on that. Our mission is really to make sure people that move to our town feel welcome,” she said.

Immigrants in Marshalltown aren’t the only ones who have had to adapt to a different atmosphere in recent years.

According to census data, in 1990, 97 percent of Marshalltown residents were non-Hispanic white, while barely 1 percent were Hispanic. By 2010, 70.3 percent of the town was non-Hispanic white and 24.1 percent was Hispanic. The foreign-born population is currently 14.1 percent, more than triple the state average.

Karen Lischer, vice president of Immigrant Allies said that while change can be difficult to deal with for native residents, refusing to adapt isn’t right.

Members of Immigrant Allies and volunteers from
the Marshalltown Public Library celebrate the 2011 
Latino Heritage Festival.  (Photo/Immigrant Allies)      

“Change is hard to adapt to, but just because some of us don’t remember what our ancestors had to go through when coming here doesn’t give us the right to bully newer immigrants,” Lischer said.

Lischer encouraged people to join the group’s effort, which, LaVille said is open to everyone.

“The cultural diversity is phenomenal. The food, customs, clothing, music, dance, everything that they [immigrants] bring from their country adds to the richness of our community and our culture,” Lischer said.

Immigrant Allies has organized several events, LaVille said, and helped many immigrants in Marshalltown. Events have included panel discussions, picnics and explaining new and current legislation. 

LaVille said Immigrant Allies not only helps explain  legislation on immigration, but it has also been a large part of the documenting process for many immigrants.

“We held a clinic for our members and had lawyers from Des Moines come down to teach us the basics of what needs to be filled out and how to fill it out,” she said. “Then, those group members helped immigrants fill out the forms and then we had the same lawyers come down to review the papers for us. It was all free to those that we helped,” she explained.

Veronica Guevara, a founding member of Immigrant Allies, said the organization wants to be a platform for discussion and to get people talking about immigration, even if they aren’t new to Marshalltown.

“I think immigration is an issue that’s directly tied to everyone, even if you’re a fourth or fifth generation immigrant that’s living here, and Immigrant Allies is trying to create a more inclusive environment and we want people to know that we’re not catering to just new immigrants,” Guevara explained.

In order to invite discussion and generate a more inclusive community, Guevara said Immigrant Allies is organizing a conference this fall.

“To do that, we’re planning a fall conference to create an opportunity for dialogue between different sectors of the community like businesses, schools and other members of the community,” she said.

Immigrant Allies will continue helping new immigrants in the documentation process, LaVille said, but will need help from the public.

The Prairie Creek String Band will be playing at a benefit concert hosted by Immigrant Allies on Sunday. It will be at 4 to 6 p.m. at The Studio at 1317 Edgington St. in Eldora, Iowa, and all proceeds will be used to assist undocumented minors and young adults in acquiring deferred action status.

Deferred action status provides DREAM Act beneficiaries with temporary protection from deportation and enables them to work and drive legally.

The work doesn’t end for the Immigrant Allies, Guevara and Lischer said, even after immigration reform passes.

“I don’t think our work will ever be done,” Guevara said. “There will always be new people immigrating, and there will always be ways we can help the community.

“We had Germans immigrating here, then Latinos, now a lot of people from Burma and Thailand are coming to Marshalltown.” Lischer said. “Who knows who the next immigrants will be, but Immigrant Allies will be here to welcome them and I hope the rest of the community will too.”

Anyone interested in helping or joining Immigrant Allies may visit the Immigrant Allies Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ImmigrantAllies, email the organization at iowa.immigrantallies@gmail.com or call 641-752-6246 for more information.

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