By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – The Migrant Support Center, a ministry of Catholic Charities Jackson formerly called the Immigration Clinic, files between 700-800 cases a year with a staff of one caseworker, a part-time assistant and a contract attorney. The center provides a variety of direct services to the immigrant population in the area, including family-based services to individuals seeking adjustment of immigration status, work authorization, naturalization and citizenship, as well as interpretation and translation services.
The center is now seeking new sources of funding. The grant money that started the service has run its course. Teresita Turner, the director of the center, said the center offers much-needed services with its limited resources.
“This is about more than just paperwork. This is about changing lives,” said Turner. “Seeing a family reunited that has been separated for years, seeing a woman be able to escape an abusive situation, seeing someone have an opportunity to change their life, that’s what makes this important,” she said. One of her most memorable cases involved a man with five children who came to the U.S. to work 30 years ago. He was forced to leave part of his family back home. While he was home for a Christmas visit he was kidnapped and held for months while his kidnappers tried to extort money from his family. When he finally escaped, Turner was able to get him asylum and had a case for bringing the rest of the family to protect them from future attacks.
These kinds of cases fit right in with what Catholics are called to do, according to Greg Patin, executive director of Catholic Charities. “Catholic Charities Migrant Support Center brings to life a number of the principles of Catholic social teaching,” said Patin. “Primarily, the center exemplifies the principle of the dignity of the human person. Each person is made in the image and likeness of God and does not lose their dignity because of circumstance, poverty or country of origin. We demonstrate the principle of the dignity of work – the right of all people to be co-creators with God in the world by having access to decent and productive work,” he said.
Immigration services are just the tip of the iceberg, said Turner. The center seeks to educate its clients. “We teach English, we do presentations on taxes, we explain their rights and responsibilities so they can be good citizens and participate in their communities, even if they are just here visiting or working,” she said. She has even helped translate a driver’s manual so clients can understand the rules of the road.
Her clients range from students to workers in the construction, agricultural and service industries. She ticked off a list of at least 20 countries from which her clients hail, Nigeria, Mexico, Belize, Colombia, India, and the Philippines.The list goes on and on.
New immigrant business owners generated $181 million in net income in Mississippi in 2010, according to the American Immigration Council. Foreign born entrepreneurs own more than four percent of all businesses in the state. Students are also a part of the economic picture, contributing more than $42 million to the state economy annually. The council stated that more than a third of the immigrants in Mississippi are naturalized citizens.
Many of the Migrant Service Center clients are eligible for a fee waiver from the government. Others are in the U.S. seeking political asylum or have become victims of crime. Turner has had cases of women who came to the U.S. to be with a fiancé only to discover that person is abusive.
Turner said migrants who are victimized are granted a special protected status if they cooperate with authorities. One of the families she helped was robbed four times. When they told Turner, she was able to put them in touch with the police. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and several police departments across the state have asked Turner to lead workshops or assist in their cases.
Migrants can apply for visas or green cards on their own, but the process is complicated and fraught with pitfalls. They may get all the way through the initial paperwork process, but if they have forgotten one item of documentation or misunderstand one step, they lose their chance. Simpson Goodman, the attorney for the center, said understanding their rights and responsibilities can make all the difference.
The center cannot help anyone who entered the country illegally. Those who cross illegally, said Turner, must return to their home countries and apply for entry.
Sometimes, Turner is able to refer migrants to appropriate auxiliary resources. She had one client who was homeless, had lost his green card and had mental health issues. Not only was Turner able to get his documents back in order, she was able to locate his family, who were overjoyed to welcome him home.
The center also hosts consulates from many nations. “Basically, the consul will come and we will secure a place for them and be on hand to help with paperwork so people can come renew their passports or other paperwork,” she explained.
The field of immigration is a constantly changing landscape, said both Turner and Goodman. “We have to take training constantly to stay current on laws, on who is eligible for asylum and more,” she said. This training takes time and money from the already strained budget. Turner used to have a case worker in Vardaman, but budget constraints cut that position. Now she has to travel all across the state to try and serve the growing population.
Turner said the board of directors is seeking money from corporations who rely on foreign workers, but they are also making an appeal to individuals and parishes to send the money needed to keep the doors open. “We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We strive every day to ‘welcome the stranger’ to our land,” said Patin.
Contact Michael Thomas at Catholic Charities at 601-355-8634 or firstname.lastname@example.org to donate. Mention Migrant Support Services on all checks.